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 Post subject: 12 Minutes to Midnight
PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 11:34 pm 

Joined: Sat Aug 20, 2016 9:33 pm
Posts: 85
Location: Behind a computer

Following my first visit to the Kingdom of Cambodia, during my military service, I found myself drawn to the country and its history. My first timeline Angkor Resurgent was my initial attempt for Cambodia to avoid the horrors of choeung ek. For those unfamiliar with the killing fields, it has been estimated that 1.4 – 2.2 million Cambodians died from April 1975 to January 1979. The victims, so called 'class enemies' of the regime, comprised soldiers, politicians or bureaucrats from the former government, ethnic minorities, merchants and intellectuals. An intellectual could be someone who merely wore glasses; a trait that would have resulted in the author joining the ranks of the victims.

The timeline begins in 1963 and it is important for the reader to understand just how small Cambodia is compared to her neighbours. Cambodia is approximately equal in size to the American state of Oklahoma and, at the time, had a population of roughly five million. In comparison, her neighbours had the following population sizes:

Democratic Republic of Vietnam 16 million

Republic of Vietnam 14 million

Kingdom of Thailand 27 million

Kingdom of Laos 2.5 million

People’s Republic of China 683 million

Cambodia’s economic base was, as a function of her smaller population, also smaller than that of her neighbours. All of which means that, at the start of the timeline, the Kingdom of Cambodia is beset with problems both domestic and international; or in the words of a well-known Khmer proverb ‘Tigers on land and crocodiles in the water.’

Furthermore, despite the timeline being defunct, I always harboured a bond with the main protagonist of Angkor Resurgent, Prince Sisowath Pinnoret, and have always wanted to include him in another TL. Although he does not ascend the throne in this timeline, his political and commercial skills are still razor sharp and in the words of Geordie:

“I rather like the chap, but I have the feeling that, were he to follow me into a revolving door, he'd emerge first. With my coat, wallet and keys.”

My thanks also goes out to numerous posters whom have helped with writing my TL and, any faults are my own.

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 11:36 pm 

Joined: Sat Aug 20, 2016 9:33 pm
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Chapter One: Those were the Days

It was chance that made Norodom Sihanouk ascend the Cambodian throne in 1941, in accordance with Cambodian succession laws his chances were remote at best as a distant relation to King Norodom. Traditionally, the eldest legitimate son of the King inherited, which was Prince Sisowath Monireth, but as he continued to fight with the Free French forces, his candidacy was ruled ineligible by the French electors. Thereby adding more fuel to the simmering feud between the two Cambodian royal lines of Norodom and Sisowath.

The Vichy French authorities reeling from their loss of prestige and territory to the Siamese, following the Franco – Siamese War, while under pressure from an increasingly predatory Imperial Japan chose the callow nineteen-year-old youth. They assumed that due to his age, Sihanouk would remain pliant to their needs, but events did not turn out as they planned.

Over time, King Norodom Sihanouk grew in his role, playing the French administrators against the Japanese forces. Both sides were suspicious of the young King, and the Japanese sought to restrain him by appointing Son Ngoc Than as his Prime Minister. Son Ngoc Than was a small bespectacled man, who regularly wore an ill-fitting grey woollen suit to most meetings, that hanged loosely from his frame. Originally, Son Ngoc Than had been a journalist, printing the first Khmer newspaper, which became famous for it's anti-imperialist and anti-French tone. He was also a rank opportunist, whom had seized upon the opportunity to collaborate with the Japanese at the first chance, and used his networks to be appointed Prime Minister. The two men maintained a cordial relationship, despite building up their own political bases against each other.

Due to Sihanouk’s successful political machinations, the war bypassed most Cambodians, leaving them free to live as their forebears had for hundreds of years. By 1945 Allied warplanes routinely crossed Cambodian airspace attacking Japanese targets, while other aircraft inserted OSS teams in Vietnam to ferment insurrection against Imperial Japan. Reading the writing on the wall, several Japanese Army officers urged Sihanouk to formally declare his independence from the French. Initially reluctant to do so, it was the urging of his Prime Minister, the mercurial Son Ngoc Thanh, that finally convinced him.

Although, Sihanouk’s announcement paled into insignificance compared to the Vietnamese declaration of independence by Ho Chi Minh, for the Cambodians it was equally memorable. A packed crowd thronged in front of the Royal Palace to hear the King proclaim their independence, but this unilateral act changed little. Again, Cambodia's future was determined by the actions of a foreign power, in this case the surrender of Imperial Japan.

The 20th Indian Army Division, commanded by Major General Douglas Gracey, was deployed to Vietnam to receive the surrender of all Japanese soldiers south of the 38th parallel. The Japanese soldiers north of the 38th parallel, surrendered to a Nationalist Chinese Army, while they waited for sufficient shipping to return them to Japan. After restoring order to South Vietnam, General Gracey offered to meet with the Cambodian Prime Minister Son Ngoc Than regarding Cambodian independence.

In an act of subterfuge, the British arrested Son Ngoc Than and, temporarily expunged the threat to the return of French rule. A company of French Legionnaires landed in Pochetong airport, and once more the Tricolor fluttered above Cambodian soil. Son Ngoc Than was then imprisoned in Saigon, before being exiled to metropolitan France.

Although, there was some political resistance to the return of French rule, by and large life remained as it had always been in the villages. The return to the status quo, strongly contrasted with the rest of Indochina. By 1946 the first Indochina War had commenced, with the French Army scouring the hills attempting to find the elusive Viet Minh guerrillas.

Cambodia was a destination for relaxation and recreation by the French Army, a sanctuary from the hard fighting in the Red River Delta or any number of unidentified battlefields across Indochina. Appearances can be deceiving, as the Khmer Issarak established control over large swathes of the remote north west of the Country, fighting the Viet Minh and the French in equal measure. The Khmer Issarak called for complete political independence from France, and the abolishment of the monarchy. Which was a truly radical notion for a movement to hold, considering the venerated place enjoyed by the monarchy within Khmer society.

To quell the growing dissatisfaction with the current political arrangement, Sihanouk travelled to Paris to negotiate a new independence treaty with France. The visit was broadly successful with Cambodia receiving independence within the confines of the Franco Union, along with a few minor concessions. As a measure of goodwill, or to ferment discord within the Cambodian political elite, the wily Son Ngoc Than was released from prison. Son Ngoc Than was received by a thronging crowd at Pochetong Airport, it over an hour to walk through the crowd and reach the waiting transport. The crowd at the airport demonstrated his appeal to the broader population, and marked Son Ngoc Than as a threat to the Sihanouk regime. The security apparatus started to covertly monitor his activities and his associates.

In December 1953, the Kingdom of Cambodia was formally granted complete independence by France, which reflected the eagerness of France to extricate herself from her Indochinese quagmire. The French High Command requested that Cambodia commit her small military forces in support of Operation Lorraine, but they avoided involvement when the Defence Minister allegedly replied that the Vietnamese would always be their neighbours. In due course, the beleaguered French garrison surrendered at Dien Bien Phu, leading to the Geneva Conference that separated Vietnam into two states pending a general election on unification. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam (Communist) and, the Republic of Vietnam (Western aligned).

In March 1955, Sihanouk boldly abdicated the throne, so that he could stand as a representative in the National Assembly and, be eligible to become Prime Minister. His father Suramit succeeded him as King ushering in the Sangkum period, a time fondly remembered by the Cambodians with the countryside at peace and an economy steadily expanded. Roads, schools and health clinics were constructed across the country, and life gradually improved for most Cambodians.

The Sangkum period, drew its name from the political party that ruled the country. Sangkum was formed from four disparate centre right parties into one semi coherent political entity. The principal point of difference within the party centred around foreign and economic policies. One of the factions were dubbed the Khmer Rouge, or the red Khmers, and were radical socialists that wished to align themselves with Communist China. While the Khmer Bleus, or blue Khmers, were sceptical of communism and wished to maintain strict neutrality between the two competing Cold War blocs.

Once in power, Norodom made Cambodia into a constitutional monarchy, and embarked on a policy that he dubbed 'Buddhist Socialism.' Whereby, socialist concepts were tempered with Buddhist principles, a syncretic blend of beliefs that had been developed following several cordial meetings with North Vietnamese Pham van Dong and the Chinese Premier Chou En Lai. Both men tactfully advised that they would respect Cambodian independence and territorial integrity. These were two undertakings that the anti - Communist Thais and South Vietnamese governments, both traditional enemies of the Khmer, were unwilling to provide.

This is not to suggest that the West was overtly hostile towards Cambodia, a military aid treaty was signed with the United States of America, to provide equipment and funding for the nascent Cambodian military. By the early 1960s the American aid programme contributed nearly a third of the total military budget and, 16 % of the country’s consolidated revenue. While significant, this shouldn’t be viewed as American largesse, in so much, as a reflection of the weakness of the Cambodian economy.

Diplomatic links with the United States of American remained cool, due to a number of small diplomatic incidents, and was exacerbated by the minor matter of embassy staff derogatorily referring to Sihanouk as Snooky. Despite being an overt American ally within the region, Australia maintained an excellent relationship with Cambodia during this period.

Concerned by the conservative nature of the military and their links with the Americans. Sihanouk purposefully limited the size and professionalism of Cambodia’s military, to erode the power base of the Chief of Army General Lon Nol. A former police officer, whose primary qualifications were his brutality, and his apparent obedience to Sihanouk.

Internationally, Sihanouk attended the Bandung conference in the Republic of Indonesia, which produced the nonaligned movement. Domestically, the political impasse within the National Assembly ossified over the years, while Norodom attempted to thread a course that did not alienate either superpowers or their domestic supporters. Surprisingly, it was dissatisfied right wing elements that moved first, with the so called ‘Bangkok Plot in December 1958. Acting decisively, Sihanouk dispatched the Army to quell the rebellion. Poorly armed and possessing little motivation, the rebels surrendered rather than fight. The police arrested the former Interior Minister Dapp Chuuon, while Son Ngoc Thanh evaded capture only to emerge in Saigon. Here, the South Vietnamese President Diem feted him, further antagonising their Cambodian neighbour.

Security services uncovered further evidence linking Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey with the attempted coup, which placed Sihanouk in a difficult position. Although, Chantaraingsey had not been caught red handed, he was incredibly popular with the broader community, and still a member of the Royal Family. Sihanouk forced the errant Prince to take monastic orders for six months at a remote Wat to contemplate his life, at the end of the six months Chantaraingsey travelled to Yale University to complete his Juris Doctorate. During his time at Yale, he wrote several romantic novels that became best sellers in Cambodia.

The remaining Khmer Issarak cells retreated to the isolated province of Otdear Manchey, where they continued to wage a low intensity campaign against the Government. President Ngo Dinh Diem regularly railed against Sihanouk in his speeches, as did the conservative Thai Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat. South Vietnam and Thailand increasingly viewed Sihanouk with suspicion, perceiving him to be a Communist stalking horse within South East Asia. Their negative perception of Sihanouk, were confirmed by the Prime Minister’s visits to the People’s Republic of China in 1956 and 1958. Sharing a porous border with a left leaning Cambodia, provided opportunities for Cambodia to provide sanctuaries for the Vietnamese and Thai communists. Both countries independently embarked upon a destabilisation campaign against the Sangkum regime.

In retaliation, an assassination attempt was made on Sihanouk’s life in August 1959, but the explosive device prematurely detonated in the Royal Post Office, killing two Police Officers. The stress of the assassination attempts and the deteriorating international situation, caused King Suramarit's health to deteriorate and, after a prolonged period of ill health died in April 1961. The King's death caused a succession problem, which Sihanouk responded to by ignoring. King Suramit had long acted as a moderating influence on his son, privately counselling him, and by raising the concerns of his subordinates. Freed from any restraint Sihanouk signed a Sino – Cambodian treaty of friendship, continuing his infatuation with left wing policies, and further alienating his conservative domestic power base.

At the Non-Aligned Movement conference in Belgrade Yugoslavia, Sihanouk formed a close relationship with the North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung. Their rapport was proclaimed by several newspapers, which led to further consternation within the conservative sections of the community.

Unfortunately, Sihanouk’s focus on improving education without matching economic growth, started to bear ill tasting fruit, as small-scale protests erupted over the inadequate jobs offered to high school and university graduates. In such a poor country, the students could only study due to the sacrifices of their family, and this represented a considerable investment in their future. Reacting to their protests, Sihanouk expanded the public service to lower the unemployment rates, but this put further pressure on an already strained budget.

An international dispute involving Thailand over the ownership of the Preah Vihear temple, temporarily overshadowed the domestic political quagmire. The Temple was built in the ninth century to worship the Hindu god Shiva at the top of Pey Tadi, a steep cliff in the Dangrek Mountain range, which forms a natural border between Thailand and Cambodia. Both countries deployed troops to the area surrounding the Temple, to assert their ownership claim and, minor skirmishes occurred along the border. However, the deployment of Royal Thai Air Force F – 86 Sabres, compelled the Cambodians to appeal to the United Nations to arbitrate the dispute, with the International Court of Justice finding 9 - 2 in favour of Cambodian ownership of the Temple, much to the dismay of the Thais.

Under pressure from a dissatisfied youth cohort, and constantly attacked by the centre right elements, Sihanouk lurched further to the left. Sihanouk covertly visited the Soviet Union to sign an arms deal, which included small arms, anti-aircraft artillery, artillery pieces, motor vehicles, and notably 16 Mig 17s.

To destroy his opposition’s power base, Sihanouk drafted legislation to nationalise key industries including: all financial institutions, manufacturing companies and railways. However, his nationalisation plans were never implemented as on Friday, 15 November 1963, a film projector case exploded killing the Prime Minister. His death plunged Cambodian politics into disarray, as they now were faced with a darker, more violent world without their charismatic leader. Fundamentally, Sihanouk had survived several assassination attempts, with the number of enemies created through his actions, it was only a matter of time until one attempt succeeded.

"Fight and Flourish"

Last edited by La Rouge Beret on Tue Sep 26, 2017 12:08 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 11:40 pm 

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Chapter Two: La rue sans joie

Prime Minister Sihanouk's assassination plunged the country into disarray, as the interim Prime Minister Norodom Kantol immediately declared a national month of mourning, to allow the ornate funeral process to commence. Apart from paying their respects to the departed Prime Minister, the month also provided time for the various factions within the National Assembly to negotiate the formation of new minority government. Although the Neutralist faction was the largest voting bloc in the National Assembly, it was still short of the fifty seats needed to form government and, needed to obtain support from either the left or right leaning parties to form government. Eventually, the Neutralist faction prevailed, by attracting several left and right wing deputies to form a unity government.

Sihanouk’s funeral attracted widespread attendance from the Communist Bloc with Soviet, Communist Chinese, North Korean sending senior members of their regime. In contrast, the South Vietnamese and the Americans sent their assistant ambassadors, as the American Ambassador Phillip D. Sprouse had been temporarily recalled to the United States. The Americans used Sihanouk’s death to extend a quiet diplomatic overture to the Cambodians, via the Australian ambassador, to advise that they were not complicit with the assassination of Sihanouk. The Military Intelligence Department, modelled upon the French Deuxieme Bureau de l’Etat major general, discovered that the assassination was organised by the Vietnamese branch of the Khmer Serei, who formally claimed responsibility for the assassination. Rumours of American involvement in the assassination circulated widely throughout Cambodia, and soon became accepted as fact.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese and the Thais were focused on internal events with the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem, and the death of the Thai Prime Minister Field Marshal Sarit Thanart. Adding further weight to conspiracy theorists, the Aviation Royal Khmere (AVRK) Chief died, when his T – 28 Trojan crashed during a check flight. An investigation by the AVRK found that the crash was caused by improper maintenance, but their finding only encouraged further speculation.

Under intense political pressure to retaliate against the Khmer Serei, the Army dispatched their senior Battalion, Premier Battalion de Chasseurs Cambodgiens, along Route One to attack a Khmer Serei outpost. Communication along the country's main east west artery had been interrupted by intermittent Serei attacks over the preceding six months, as multiple convoys were either shelled or ambushed by the marauding Khmer Serei irregulars. The attacks emanated from a string of fortified villages near Phumi Cham, some 20 kilometres north of the South Vietnamese border.

The Premier Battalion was supported by armour and artillery detachments, representing the largest Army operation since the aborted Bangkok plot in 1959. At first view the Cambodian forces assigned to this operation appeared impressive, particularly when compared against the enemy’s notional strength of one weak infantry regiment.

Confident of the superiority of his Battalion group compared to the Khmer Serei, Lieutenant Colonel Suy inexplicably ignored any form of reconnaissance or flank security, as the formation blindly drove along Route One. In contrast, the 'amateur' Khmer Serei posted a string of observers along the road, who provided regular updates on their movement to the Serei headquarters. Halfway to the base, a fallen log lay across the road, as it gently curved around to the right, stopping the convoy. The possibility that a road blockage could indicate an ambush did not occur to Lieutenant Colonel Suy, as he harassed the convoy's lead elements to clear the blockage and continue the advance.

Captain Pang, commander of the M – 8 Greyhound squadron looked straight ahead, passed the log that stopped the column from advancing. It was impossible to decide who fired first – the gritty infantry Sergeant Ok at the head of the clearing detail, who saw a rifle barrel flash in the sun, or a nervous Khmer Serei, who felt that the Army were too close for comfort. In any case the fire fight developed with incredible violence at short range. The quick reactions of the clearing detail, who dropped to the ground and rolled off into the saving mud of the adjoining rice paddies, saved anyone in the detail from being seriously wounded.

However, that did not stop the destruction of the lead vehicles, as bazooka rounds destroyed the first vehicle. The second armoured car, fully buttoned up, swung their turret to face the suspected threat, and began firing at the jungle. Meanwhile, the infantrymen had spread in arc around the vehicles, but without moving towards the enemy. The sole remaining armoured vehicle was a clear target, until it too, was destroyed by a pair of bazooka rounds. While the armoured car lay ablaze, a pair of fifty calibre machine guns raked the exposed convoy, pinning the soldiers. Inexperienced troops under fire for the first time, will naturally cluster together, it is the responsibility of the junior leaders to prevent this, as it creates a clear target for indirect fire.

An 81-mm mortar battery then methodically targeted each clump of men, some attempted to flee, but were soon cut down by the machine guns. Sergeant Ok along with his clearing detail managed to withdraw out of the kill zone, and walked along Route Six towards the capital. The surviving soldiers remaining near the destroyed convoy, were bayoneted by the victorious Khmer Serei. When the Serei left the ambush site, only smoldering vehicle skeletons and corpses were left in their wake.

The outcome should have been predictable, considering the small size of the Army combined with their abysmal training standards. Soldiers that could neatly parade in front of the Royal Palace like up wind up dolls, were ill prepared to meet the challenging nature of unconventional warfare.

News of the destruction of the Premier Battalion spread throughout the country, and emboldened the separatist movements in Western Cambodia. Sensing the government’s weakness, these movements received supplies from Thailand across the porous border, and enflamed the Battambang revolt. The General Staff was now faced with two internationally supported insurgencies on their eastern and western borders, and had been publicly censured by the Prime Minister for the abysmal loss of a Battalion Group. Indeed, 16 January 1964 remains a dark day in the annals of Cambodian military history, but historically acts as a footnote to a subsequent operation. Army Intelligence identified a company level Khmer Serei outpost, which was marked as an appropriate reprisal target. The subsequent Operation was known as Operation Thunderbolt and, it was hoped would restore the Army's credibility following the debacle along Route One.

The Battle of the Crossroads

The Cambodian General Staff conceived Operation Thunderbolt, to demonstrate the capabilities of the Cambodian military to every combatant involved in the deepening military quagmire of Indochina. Cambodian history had repeatedly shown how friendly powers could become tomorrow’s oppressor. Their mission was to capture a company level Khmer Serei outpost situated on a hill, overlooking a former banana plantation, roughly equidistant between Snuol and Sre Rumdoul.

These same intelligence reports, also indicated that the Khmer Serei unit would withdraw rather than fight. The level of information available to the Cambodian General Staff, to plan this operation was incredibly detailed. However, the intelligence reports misidentified the occupants of the outpost, the occupants were PAVN regulars not irregulars. This was to prove a material oversight for the conduct of the mission.

The units assigned to Operation Thunderbolt included, two infantry battalions, and a single paratrooper company held in reserve at Phnom Penh. A flight of AVRK A 1 Skyraiders was tasked to the area, to provide close air support if required. The forces assigned to Operation Thunderbolt ostensibly to attack a single infantry company, dwarfed those available to Major Sisowath to stop a cross border insurgency campaign. Furthermore, to ensure that their operation received the requisite attention, the General Staff had allowed a Mr Thomas Fowler, a journalist from the London Times to be present.

In the early hours of Wednesday, 4 March 1964, the first rain drops fell, heralding the start of the monsoon season. The muddy roads slowed the arrival of the Ninth Battalion, forcing the Seventh Battalion to huddle beneath their ponchos, in a vain attempt to remain dry. During the delay Lieutenant Sok, Officer Commanding Bravo Company, had requested that a reconnaissance patrol be sent out to identify the PAVN positions, or even to confirm that they remained in place. His request was denied, as the Battalion Commander, Major Fanmoung, did not want to potentially alert the enemy. Impatient from the delay and mindful of the weather, Major Fanmoung, ordered the Seventh Battalion to attack.

At 10:30 the battalion stepped off into light drizzle, as the clouds that had been promising rain all day, followed through. The Battalion was formed up in a classic two up one back formation, with Alpha and Charlie companies being the first two companies and Bravo being held in reserve.

The battalion crossed the banana plantation, and their heavy machine guns ceased firing, as the soldiers waded through the knee-deep mud up the hill. An eerie silence descended across the countryside, a silence that seemed so oppressive that it cut through the humidity. As most of the Cambodian soldiers began to look downwards at the mud, that seemingly encased their feet, the PAVN opened fire exposing the Cambodians to plunging enfilade fire from a defilade position. Alpha and Charlie Company were pinned down almost immediately from the sustained machine gun fire. The remainder of the hill had minimal vegetation, and to continue the assault meant crossing open ground.

Charlie Company seized the initiative, locating a ravine to the right of the assault line, that seemingly offered concealed movement. Seven Platoon, Charlie Company maintained contact with the PAVN, while Eight and Nine platoons sought to use the ravine to conduct a flanking attack. However, in their haste, they had forgotten an important lesson, namely dead ground can conceal movement, but also acts as a fire channel. Combined, with the fact that inexperienced soldiers will naturally converge as they assault a position; Charlie Company’s fighting strength was reduced to a single platoon within five minutes.

Alpha Company reached the outlying PAVN fighting positions, and with the destruction of Charlie Company began to receive sustained fire from medium and heavy machine guns. This was the first time that most of these soldiers had assaulted a fixed position, as opposed to the patrolling and ambush routines of counter insurgency warfare. Accordingly, the attack stalled, and Major Fanmoung committed Bravo Company. Due to the rain becoming heavier, and the proximity of Alpha and the Charlie Companies to the PAVN, meant that the Cambodian heavy machine gun were unable to provide fire support.

The A – 1 Skyraiders roared impotently over the battlefield unable to conduct close air support mission, due to the diminished visibility, and the solitary forward air controller was accompanying the Ninth battalion. From their cockpits, the pilots glimpsed the attack and the muzzle fire from both sides. Unable to positively identify the Cambodian forward edge of battle, or to raise any call sign on the designated radio frequency, and with the weather deteriorating further, the Skyraiders returned to Pochetong airport.

Bravo Company joined the assault line, to the left of Alpha Company, attempting to turn the enemy’s left flank, but ran into further PAVN fighting positions. The attack had now stalled, after three hours of fighting ammunition supplies were creeping ever lower. However, at 14:45 that the Ninth Battalion arrived, after shaking out into an assault line moved forward, which allowed the remnants of the Seventh battalion to consolidate their position on the left of the line. Captain Bun, the Ninth Battalion Commander, advised Major Fanmoung that the Paratroopers held in reserve had launched from Phnom Penh, and could be expected to arrive at the drop zone within thirty minutes. The Ninth Battalion’s assault was initially successful, as they occupied the outer ring of PAVN fighting positions, however they were counter attacked and driven back down the hill.

All six C – 47s had launched, but due to maintenance issues two planes were diverted en route, reducing the paratroopers operational strength to 72 soldiers. The first drop zone (“DZ”) was ruled out due to the proximity of the fighting and the inclement weather, which meant that the paratroopers would jump on the second DZ, which was a further 15 miles away. During the monsoon period, the winds in eastern Cambodia usually reach gale force late in the afternoon.

This is a fact which is generally known, but escaped the weather observers several hundred miles away in Phonm Penh. The result was that when the C-47s of the Air Transport Group appeared over the DZ, the wind was blowing gusts up to thirty miles an hour, twice the maximum usually permissible limit for airborne drops. The jump masters looked down at the DZ, with the trails of its smoke pots lying almost flat on the ground, and shook their heads. The jump master looked down at the drop zone saying in disbelief, “Hell you can’t have these guys jump into this mess… They’re going to be blown all over the place, light as they are!”

In fact, their lightness had always been one of the problems and jokes among the Khmer paratroopers. Jumping with American parachutes used a calculation of a 200-pound man with 85 to 100 pounds of equipment, not the slight Khmer 100 pounder paratrooper, whom lugging the same paraphernalia, weighed generally half of their larger American or European counterparts. Consequently, a Cambodian airborne unit generally floated longer in the air, and were spread over a far wider area upon landing. The consequence was predictable soldiers were dragged through bushes at speeds matching a racing horse. The parachutes’ shroud lines strangled two paratroopers, while they desperately tried to liberate themselves from the silken web.

When the battalion finally assembled, which was no mean feat considering their dispersal over the entire area in the monsoonal weather. Most of the Paratroopers followed the age-old law of paratrooper assembly: Walk “downwind” against the general direction of the drop, and you will find your fellow soldiers. The Paratroopers, at best a weak rifle force, marched towards the battle. It was in the words of the later General Rang, the easiest navigation he ever conducted in his career, as despite the rain, as all he had to do was march to the sound of the guns.

By 16:20 ammunition levels were low, and a detachment led by Adjutant - Chef Thy brought-up supplies of ammunition, and water from the Battalion headquarters. After sustaining heavy casualties, the Ninth Battalion was driven off the hill, the Seventh Battalion was ordered to withdraw at nightfall, to potentially minimise casualties, as they retreated across the open ground.

The paratroopers, recreate this moment as part of their P Company training, marched the 15 miles in three hours through thick vegetation and mud. The paratroopers commenced their attack from the east of the PAVN position, and initially only received sporadic fire. Đại úy (Captain) Trinh recognised the threat posed by the paratroopers and, reorganised his defence. Although the paratroopers came under sustained fire, they depended upon the initiative and aggressiveness of their soldiers, unfortunately there was an inadequate number of paratroopers to sustain their attack, and like their colleagues were unsuccessful. Their attack was not in vain, as the tattered remnants of the Seventh Battalion withdrew down the hill, without sustaining any further casualties.

As night fell Đại úy Trinh, wary of being encircled, withdrew his infantry Company northwards, successfully disengaging from the battle. The battle of the cross roads was at an end, the losses for the PAVN were estimated at sixty men from the blood trails, and in exchange the North Vietnamese had mauled two Cambodian battalions. The repercussions of this battle were to be long standing.


The net result of the battle, was that the previously untrammelled power base of the Chief of Army General Lon Nol was eroded. It was also clear to the Cambodian government and the public at large, following the scathing article written in the London Times, that the Army could not win a conventional battle against either the PAVN, and by default the American Army. The slow-moving impetus to reform the military, began to gather pace within the halls of power. Indeed, this battle was to feature prominently in explaining the reluctance of senior Cambodian military figures, and politicians to commit the Cambodian military to the ever expanding conflict, until their capabilities were drastically improved.

Meanwhile reports of the success of the 2nd Battalion fighting against the Khmer Serei circulated within Phnom Penh, following an anonymous tip off to several leading newspapers. After the disastrous Battle of the Crossroads, the Nation searched for a hero, and soon all eyes were on the actions of a previously overlooked Army officer. The eastern insurgency soon died down, because of the parlous security situation faced by South Vietnam. The Vietnamese used the Khmer Serei as a mobile force against the Viet Cong. The 2nd Battalion remained in Otdear Manchey province interdicting the now greatly lessened Thai based Khmer Serei threat.

"Fight and Flourish"

Last edited by La Rouge Beret on Tue Sep 26, 2017 12:20 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 11:43 pm 

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Chapter Three: East is east and west is west

The simmering insurgency in the remote North West exploded with the news of the destruction of the Premier Battalion de Chasseurs Cambodgiens group, news of the defeat compelled the Thai based Khmer Serei to unite with the Khmer Issarak remnants in Otdear Manchey. This union provided a clear logistical trail, to supply men and material in support of the Battambang rebellion. Unrest fermented throughout the Cambodian western provinces including Battambang, Pailin, Banteay, Meanchey, Otdear Manchey and Siem Reap Provinces.

To staunch the insurgency, the Cambodian Army deployed the 2nd Light Infantry Battalion to Otdear Manchey province, the focal point for the Khmer Serei attacks and a key component of the Serei supply chain. Out of necessity, the political outcast Major Sisowath Monireth was rehabilitated, and assigned the 2nd Battalion by the General Staff with a very loose set of orders. With such a large area to successfully cover, Sisowath’s immediate priority was to improve his soldiers’ professional standards. A veteran of the bloody Algerian conflict, Sisowath recognised that a successful counter insurgency operation depended upon small unit tactics, aggressive patrolling by infantry sections, and outstanding small unit leadership.

Traditionally, at the minimum a Brigade would secure a province, and Sisowath requested that a further two battalions be released to his control. The General Staff provided the 2nd Battalion with an additional two rifle companies, not the two battalions as requested. At face value, the refusal to grant additional battalions seem petty, but it reflected the pressing demands faced by a small military dealing with multiple insurgencies across the country.

With the number of existential problems facing Cambodia, Sisowath Monireth largely had a free hand to conduct counter insurgency operations within the province as he saw fit. Concurrent with his emphasis on improving training standards, Monireth integrated the local constabulary into his operational plans, leveraging upon their local knowledge of the area. A review of the methods employed by the Khmer Serei, gleaned from the constabulary records, revealed that they primarily operated in remote jungle, far away from infrastructure.

In a Western army, most infantry units were motorised, while in the Cambodian Army trucks were a Brigade level asset used to move specific units, the sole exception were the Royal Guard. The poverty of the Cambodians was in this case was beneficial, as the lack of motorised transportation for the entire battalion, meant that the battalion had to patrol the province on foot, which was advantageous in a counter insurgency campaign. Their poverty was encapsulated by the fact that a dead soldier would routinely have his boots removed, as the government could not afford to lose government issued footwear.

The Cambodian soldiers slowly patrolled ever deeper into the jungle, while establishing road blocks, and escorting convoys. Each individual Rifle Company was assigned an allotted area, and were in turn given free range of movement. It shocked the Cambodian Army that the Khmer Serei guerrillas were better armed with AK – 47s that were superior to the unwieldly M – 1 Garands carried by the Cambodian soldier. Their patrolling restricted the previously untrammeled Khmer Serei’s freedom of movement, which was further constrained by setting up nightly ambushes along the road networks, augmenting the night time curfews instituted throughout the province.

Utilising his discretionary powers, Major Sisowath Monireth requested Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey act as his Battalion intelligence officer. Chantaraingsey had recently returned from his unofficial exile within the United States, only to immediately irritate the General Staff by publicly attacking their poorly conceived counterinsurgency tactics. Eager to be rid of him, Captain Chantaraingsey was promptly transported to the North West, and he soon provided a distinct edge to the Cambodian forces. As a pair, they could not have contrasted more clearly, the cold, stern patrician Officer with a warm, garrulous man, notwithstanding their starkly different personality traits they made an excellent team.

A Hearts and Minds campaign was initiated by Chantaraingsey, to separate the isolated Cambodian villagers from the Khmer Serei guerillas. The effort at winning over the villagers was strengthened by the 2nd Battalion adopting the Maoist principles of the ‘Three rules, and eight points of discipline.’ Soldiers assisted with collecting the rice harvest, repairing buildings within the remote villages and, ensured that the local markets flourished under the soldiers’ watchful eyes. These effort, assisted with the collection of intelligence, which would be used to end the Khmer Serei threat.

A joint intelligence centre was established to pool the information gathered through the police and army efforts. Chantaraingsey used his previous networks cultivated during his role in the aborted Bangkok plot, as well as previous time as a leader with the Khmer Issarak, to develop a systematic human intelligence network across the porous border.

Despite their success, the 2nd Battalion still faced severe problems within their chain of command, the best example of this was that their paymaster ‘mislaid’ their pay twice in a row. By the third month the Battalion had a new paymaster, to replace the now missing paymaster. Exploiting their royal connections, the two Princes issued M – 1 helmets to the entire Battalion, but the green camouflage cover had turned brown due to being stored in the open. In time, the Khmer Serei and later the Vietnamese, would automatically respect the soldiers with the brown helmets. As their logistical supply chain now functioned, it was time to undertake offensive action against the enemy.

Their first success for the Brown Helmets came in January 1964 at the small village of Phumi Roessei in Otdear Manchey Province, where the 2nd Battalion successfully repulsed a Khmer Serei attack. Following this success, a Serei courier was captured in a Bravo Company ambush in early March, the courier revealed the location of the main logistical base during his interrogation. Moving quickly the 2nd Battalion redeployed to the northern border, establishing a forward operating base in the shadows of the Dangrek mountain range.

Major Sisowath and Captain Chantaraingsey conceived a bold plan to destroy the Khmer Serei base, immediately prior to the wet season. Traditionally fighting tapered off in the lead up to the monsoon season and, the two men hoped that an attack would catch the Khmer Serei off guard. Alpha and Charlie Companies carefully slipped into the Area of Operations from 9 March onwards, positioning themselves between the Khmer Serei base and the safety of the Thai border. On Sunday 15 March Bravo Company led by First Lieutenant Uy launched a frontal attack on the Khmer Serei logistical base. Bravo Company’s role was to flush out the enemy, much as beaters would on a fox hunt, driving the enemy towards the two waiting rifle companies.

At 08:55 a.m. a solitary burst of machine gun fire echoed along the ridge line, followed by a second, and then each machine gun fired alternatively. Machine gun rounds bounced off the fighting positions and into the scrub behind. While others lodged themselves in sandbags and flesh. Reluctantly at first soldiers along the skirmish line crawled towards the enemy as bullets sent metal shards and bark tumbling along their ranks. The emphasis on infantry minor tactics paid off as the Cambodian methodically bounded forwards in small groups, only moving if supporting fire was received.

As the assault reached the outer limits of the Khmer Serei positions, an entire section would fire at the defensive position covering the advance of a pair of soldiers. Once at the lip of the position, one soldier would fire a burst of sub machine gun fire through the opening, while the second soldier would throw a grenade immediately afterwards. Clods of dirt and smoke rose upwards as the Cambodians moved passed the first line of fortifications, and into the base itself. A green rocket was fired into the sky, and the machine gun fire from the Fire Support section ceased.

As the Cambodian soldiers moved into the forward operating base itself, it seemed remarkably like their own base. Drab green canvas tents stood next to footpaths marked by whitewashed rocks, while ammunition crates and combat ration caches were neatly stacked beneath camouflage netting. During the search, a Khmer Serei soldier leapt out at a Cambodian soldier, taking him by surprise. Reacting instinctively and recognising the need to take prisoners, the Cambodian knocked the Serei soldier out with a mean right cross. Apart from a few other isolated incidents of resistance, most of the Khmer Serei fled northwards towards the waiting Alpha and Charlie Companies. Intermittent skirmishes continued throughout the afternoon, as the Khmer Serei force was destroyed.

Dubbed the battle of Phumi Roseei by the media, it has been used to mark the turning point for Government forces within their counter insurgency campaign. The aftermath of the attack had a strategic impact: as American supplies, weapons and a dead adviser were found within the base. Mr Thomas Fowler from the London Times duly reported his findings in an article, which caused a minor stir for the Editor. Consequently, the pro American faction was discredited by the find, while the corpse was quietly repatriated to the United States with full military honours.

However, the disastrous Battle of the Crossroads and the worsening domestic unrest within Battambang province, overshadowed Major Sisowath’s success. Battambang is Cambodia’s breadbasket, much like the San Joaquin Valley in California. Any disruption to the collection of the rice crop, dramatically raised rice prices across the country, thereby pricing a key dietary staple out of the reach of many. The cause of the revolt stemmed from the excessive rents extracted by the landowners from the tenant farmers, and the punitive measures performed by the government tax collectors.

When the police ignored their complaints, 'accidentally' killing the instigator during an attempted arrest; his death acted as a catalyst turning a local dispute into provincial unrest. Indeed, the local infantry battalion, comprised primarily of soldiers from Battambang, was called upon to restore order by the provincial Governor. The soldiers refused to obey their orders, or to leave their barracks. The battalion was disarmed, while a Gendarme contingent guarded the barracks.

Accounts from the rioters show that they attempted to negotiate with the Governor and, had even sent a letter to the Prime Minister requesting his intervention. These appeals were ignored by the Prime Minister's Office, indeed it is possible that he was unaware of their protests. In their desperation, farmers tried to enact change by themselves. Unafraid of creditors and other capitalists, they hoped for a change which would free them from debt-bondage. They announced their intention to cease paying taxes and refused to recognise the authority of the Phnom Penh government. By setting up an autonomous liberated zone, the farmers sought greater freedom and the ability to better influence rice crop prices, thereby improving their situation.

After being made aware of the farmers’ request for an outside intermediary to broker a settlement, the Queen inconspicuously travelled to the province to secretly meet with all parties. This discussion was crystallized by the Ba Srae address, which outlined a path that was acceptable to the landholders, the tenant farmers, and the government.

Concurrent with the Ba Srae address, and the parlous state of the Cambodian military. Prime Minister Kantol signed an agreement with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, to enable North Vietnamese troops to be resupplied via the port located at Sihanoukville, and to purchase domestic rice supplies via a government approved intermediary. In exchange, several advantageous trade agreements with the Communist Bloc were signed, including the construction of a tractor factory to make Zetor tractors under license.

To celebrate the Cambodian – Czechoslovakian trade agreement, the Czechoslovakian football champions AC Sparta Prague travelled to Cambodia to play a friendly match against the domestic League champion, the Gendarmerie Royale Khmere Football Club. Similar friendly games were organised with the East German Dynamo Dresden, affiliated with the East German secret police and, FC Spartak Moscow. Thailand and South Vietnam looked on in dismay at the proliferation of sporting and cultural tours from the Eastern Bloc touring Cambodia. Their fears that Cambodia was a stalking horse for Communist, appeared to be true.

The Ba Srae address tangibly improved the lives of most farmers, although fringe elements continued to protest and attack government forces until 1966. These attacks remained isolated actions, as the Army placated the farmer's angst by adopting the Maoist principle of the ‘Three rules, and eight points of discipline.’ Indeed, the incorporation of these principles is still present today with Agricultural Science remaining a key subject for all Junior Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers. The State of Emergency was finally declared over in 1966, and had strengthened the country’s perceptions of the Army, and the Royal Family as institutions that united the country.

While the Khmer Serei insurgency was finally quelled in 1966, the inauguration of the new Thai Prime Minister Field Marshall Thanom Kittikachorn allowed a peaceful relationship to be restored with Thailand. With the successful conclusion of the revolt, the government looked for international support to rebuild and expand their Army. Although, some within the military wanted to look directly for American assistance, the neutralist politicians and military officers won the day, and alternate nonaligned options were considered. There was a concession to the western faction, with several senior soldiers and Officer Cadets sent to Australia for instruction.

As a member of the nonaligned movement, the potential pool of instructors was limited to a few ‘acceptable countries,’ and the Cambodian military narrowed this list down to three: the Egyptians, the Indians, and the Israelis. Considering the language requirements, and the limited number of native English speakers in the Cambodian military. The Israelis were selected due to their French proficiency, which it was hoped would assist instruction. Their recent successful combat experience also played a part in their selection.

"Fight and Flourish"

Last edited by La Rouge Beret on Tue Sep 26, 2017 12:19 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 11:45 pm 

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Chapter Four: Down Mexico Way

The Hotel Le Royale styled itself as the Cambodian equivalent of the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, it remains the meeting place in Phnom Penh for entrepreneurs, writers, journalists, royalty, and intrepid travelers. In a small private dining room adjacent to the stylish Restaurant Le Royale, the Cambodian Foreign Minister Sisowath Pinnoret met with a swarthy gentlemen over a late business lunch. After consuming several bottles of red wine, the meeting ended at around nine p.m, most onlookers assumed that a trade deal had been concluded with Mexico. This could not have been further from the truth.

The impetus for the meeting commenced when the former Israeli ambassador to Thailand, Mordechai Kidron, was quietly contacted about aiding the Cambodian military via Charles Kahn. Kahn* was a close confidante of the former Prime Minister Norodom Sihanouk, and remained in an amorphous position leveraging off his strong political connections established during the Sangkum period. Within a few days Kidron arrived in country with a Mossad officer, Hezi Carmel in tow, and met with the Foreign Minister Sisowath Pinnoret. At the end of the meeting, Israel had committed to sending a training mission to Cambodia.

Major General Rehavam “Gandhi” Ze'evi, the deputy head of the Operations Division within the Israeli Army, was made the head of the Mission and, conducted a brief fact finding tour of the country. Gandhi travelled incognito visiting the recent battle sites, talking with Army veterans during his travels. To mask his origins and the mission itself, Ze’evi was introduced as a Mexican journalist to the soldiers, which was an effective ruse. By the end of the month, a Royal Air Cambodge Sud Aviation Caravelle landed in Phnom Penh landing with an initial team of twelve Israeli Defence Force (“IDF”) instructors.

The team’s mission had three objectives: firstly, to train a local instructional cadre, secondly to allow the Cambodians to write the instructional material, and finally all field training was to be led by the Cambodians. In the prepatory phase, the IDF mission studied the multiple invasions of Cambodian ranging from the First Indochinese War, both Franco – Thai wars, and even the campaigns of Jayavarman II in the ninth century. The Burma and the Malayan campaigns in World War Two were analysed to provide further insight into jungle warfare. After all of this, the Israelis poured over the Cambodians current doctrine and like King Solomon passed judgement. Their formal recommendation was that Cambodia should develop a non-aggressive, non-provocative defence policy, with “holding formations” emplaced on the borders.

The holding formation with limited offensive power, was designed to check an enemy’s advance. Cambodia’s offensive power was derived from the Strategic Reserve, consisting of the airborne brigade as the ready reaction force, supported by a motorised brigade that was spearheaded by Cambodia’s 1st Royal Tank Regiment. The Strategic Reserve was based in Central Cambodia, which enabled them the freedom of manoeuvre to counterattack, and to penetrate the enemy’s rear echelon destroying their own strike corps through deep sledgehammer blows in a high intensity battle of attrition.

However, poor doctrine did not solely constrain the military, but also the poor place held by the military in Cambodian society. Indeed, the Minister for Defence, off the record of course, advised that a military career was a choice fit only for those without options. It was in the words of one politician, “an occupation for a peasant, but not his betters.” The community viewed military service as a contemptible profession, indeed out of a survey of ten professions it scored last. First place was an artist, followed by the philosopher, the teacher, the merchant, down to a thief in ninth place. Another belief that diminished the military’s standing was that the success of the Viet Minh was because their army was comprised of illiterate tough Vietnamese nha que rather than the ‘soft’ well educated French or American soldiers. This belief conveniently overlooked the dramatic difference in motivation and morale between the two sets of soldiers. Further, this belief had been so thoroughly inculcated into the service, that the Army actively recruited for soldiers who were illiterate and ‘tough,’ reinforcing the perception that only the truly desperate would consider a military career.

The Mexicans identified several points in their initial review that needed to be addressed promptly, one was that due to the Cambodia’s small manpower base, relative to their larger potential enemies, the Country needed to implement National Service. National Service which was last implemented during the Bangkok Plot. While it remained on the government books, it had remained unimplemented to reduce costs. National Service remained the only way to quickly increase military strength.

On their 18th birthday all Cambodian men were subject to conscription, and served a two-year period, followed by thirteen years in the reserves. With increased funds, came increased scrutiny, as the children of senior government officials wrote home of dilapidated accommodation, and infrequent pay. Which is not to suggest that the service arrangements for the privileged were not easier than their peers, they were, but the increased scrutiny led to an improvement in the conditions enjoyed by all servicemen. It also provided the opportunity for the residents of Phnom Penh to meet provincial farmers from Battambang, Muslim Cham, Lao and Thai minorities for the first time. Notably, the Conscription Act included the sons of the remaining French colons, who due to their generally higher levels of education served in technical arms, such as armour, artillery, or the Air Force. The broadening of the recruitment base also led to the re-enlistment of several retired French officers and, non-commissioned officers, which seasoned the entire Cambodian military. In time the Army was seen, along with the Monarchy, as an institution for all Cambodians.

Further, with a slowly growing domestic economy all three services found a relatively large pool of unemployed or underemployed youth that would never have previously considered a career within the military. Consequently, the addition of recruits from the nascent middle class provided the Army with the core of their non-commissioned Officer and commissioned Officer ranks. This inadvertently improved service professionalism particularly within the junior enlisted and commissioned ranks, and it was these soldiers that were most receptive to the Israeli instructors.

The small IDF force was augmented, at times, by specific cadre of specialist officers, who provided their technical knowledge to the respective. Major General Avraham Adan, an Armoured corps officer, who had previously led the 82nd Battalion part of the 7th Brigade during the 1956 crisis. When the French departed, they left much of their American Lend – Lease light armour to equip the Cambodian units. They included M3A1 halftracks, scout cars, 37mm M 8 Armoured cars and, the M 24 Chaffee. Adan recommended that the Cambodians acquire the recently retired Chaffee tanks from South Vietnam, and conduct a midlife upgrade on the tanks. This programme replaced the M – 24 turret with an AMX 13 turret, and upgraded the transmission. The upgrade was conducted in country, thereby creating an embryonic domestic manufacturing base. After returning home, Adan became the deputy commander of the 31st Armoured Division fighting in the Sinai in 1967, and in 1969 the head of the Armoured Corps.

Several Israeli Officers initially felt that there was little need or operational scope for armour in Cambodia, given the terrain, the nature of the counter insurgency and low level conventional battles. This analysis proved faulty, since many areas were in actuality 'reasonable' tank country; further armour could be utilised in convoy escort, reaction and relief forces, reconnaissance in force, line of communication security and base defence. Unfortunately, they were frequently employed in the last two roles, which saw them used as mobile pillboxes without taking advantage of their mobility, firepower and shock effect. Adan like Gandhi walked the country, recognised the decisive role that armour could play in dense jungle environment on the borders. The Israeli advisory team then worked hard to convince the Cambodians to integrate their small mechanised force into their plans.

Indeed, the Israeli instructors’ professionalism is demonstrated by quietly discussing jungle warfare tactics with the Australian Military Attache, a type of warfare that was of little use for a country in the desert. Colonel Ted Serong, the former head of the Australian Army Training Team - Vietnam travelled to Cambodia, and spent a week reviewing the findings from the Israeli mission. Within a month, the Australian Army established a jungle warfare training centre for the Cambodians, and offered several Officer Cadet training billets at the prestigious Royal Military College – Duntroon, and the more practical Officer Cadet School - Portsea. The later Major General Vis Keo provides his thoughts below:

“My first memory of OCS - Portsea is the cold as I got off the bus and, the beasting I received when I put four bar heaters around my bed to stay warm! Apart from the cold, I remember the friendliness of my other Officer Cadets. Without a doubt, it was a critical part of my military career.”

During this time, middle ranking officers completed their staff course at the Defence Services Staff College in India. For the most part, the officers enjoyed their time, learning from the recent military experience of their Indian Army colleagues. A couple went further afield and studied at Frunze in the Soviet Union, as the Cambodian Army did not have any Cold Weather uniforms, their Soviet peers issued the two Officers Red Army greatcoats. Even today, the Cambodian Army winter issue includes a thick grey overcoat for overseas service. Another practical item taken from the Soviets was the integration of Nomograms into general use, particularly to assist with integrating indirect fire elements.

Another Israeli officer that left a lasting impact on the Cambodians was Lieutenant Colonel Amos Ne'eman. A paratrooper who participated in the landing at Mitla Pass, formerly commanded an amphibious reconnaissance unit, his peers considered him to be a specialist in special operations and intelligence gathering. Although the AVRK possessed a limited photo reconnaissance capability with their Mig 17 Frescos, the thick vegetation made aerial reconnaissance largely useless. Considering the deteriorating security situation, the Minister of Defence authorised the creation of a strategic reconnaissance unit be formed in 1966 that was attached to the General Staff. Amos modelled the Pathfinders on the elite Israeli Sayeret Matkal field intelligence-gathering unit, conducting deep reconnaissance behind enemy lines to obtain strategic intelligence.

Adam Tzivoni, a retired Colonel who had been head of the planning and weapons branch in the Israeli Air Force, was appointed as the lead adviser to the Aviation Royal Khmere (Royal Cambodian Air Force). The primary strike element of the Air Force, 16 Mig 17 PFs suffered from a lack of flying hours, the Migs underwent a barebones upgrade package that replaced Soviet radios with Western radios, gunsights, and ejection seats. This programme was paid by the transfer of two 'crashed' Mig 17s, which were delivered to Israel with spare parts and engines. Tzivoni recommended an organizational restructure of the AVRK, as the smallest professional branch.

The Aviation Royal Khmere (Royal Cambodian Air Force) comprised an Advanced Training Squadron, Intervention Group, Observation Group, Transport and Liaison Group, and Helicopter Group. These were amended to the following, Intervention Group became two squadrons 101 (Mig 17s) and 102 (T – 28 and A – 1 Skyraiders), 103 Squadron (Training Role), 104 Squadron (Army Cooperation), 105 Squadron (Transport aircraft), 106 Squadron (Helicopters), 107 Squadron (T – 28 & Skyraiders). However, international events largely overshadowed the changing Cambodian military, as analyst concentrated on the widening second Vietnamese war.

President Charles De Gaulle visited Cambodia in April 1966 to announce the construction of Michelin tyre factory, among other trade deals. However, his visit served a second purpose, as he uttered his famous neutralisation speech at the spacious Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh. The neutralist faction within Cambodian politics had suggested Le General speak on neutrality to potentially end the fratricidal Vietnamese conflict, before it engulfed Cambodia.

After the speech, Cambodian diplomats proposed a conference to discuss how to neutralise Indochina and, sought diplomatic support from each of the three other states that formerly comprised French Indochina. Being the smallest of the four states, it was unsurprising that the Kingdom of Laos greeted the proposal warmly. Cambodia was enthusiastic towards the proposal, primarily due to the actions of North and South Vietnam fighting across their border areas with scant regard to the damage being wrought to their countryside or their citizens. But it was the entrenched opposition in both North and South Vietnam, along with the antagonism of both Cold War superpowers to the plan, that effectively quashed the opportunity for peace in the short term. It was revealed that this offer received serious consideration from the North Vietnamese politburo, but ultimately the hawk faction led by Le Duan prevailed. With the rejection of neutrality Cambodia, along with the rest of Indochina, was inexorably drawn towards a much wider conflagration.

Indeed in 1967 the great Israeli General Moshe Dayan, visited Vietnam to cover the American experience for an Israeli newspaper, made a short trip across the border to observe the success of his training team. His diary noted the progress that had been made by the team in increasing the size of the Cambodian military and their professional standards. The Cambodian Army build up did not occur in a bubble, as across the Vietnamese border the American force in South Vietnam increased dramatically in size during the same period from 120,000 soldiers in 1965 to 450,000 soldiers in 1968. Essentially, Cambodia was hemmed in by the American forces, and Communist Forces with scant room to breathe.

The original terms of the agreement between North Vietnam and Cambodia limited their support to logistical networks, but under no circumstances was Cambodia to be used as a springboard for launching offensives. The Vietnamese ignored their original undertaking as they launched the 1968 Tet Offensive from their Cambodian sanctuaries, which strained diplomatic relations.

During the Tet Offensive, the South Vietnamese President Thieu was killed by the Viet Cong, as he visited his wife’s family in My Tho in the Mekong Delta. Following Thieu’s death, General Duong van “Big” Minh returned to Vietnam from exile in Thailand to contest the Presidential elections, his reputation was partially rehabilitated by writing a pro war article for Foreign Affairs in 1968. This act allayed the concerns from the South Vietnamese and American hawks, regarding Minh's progressive attitude towards land reform and, that his brother was a General in the People's Army of Vietnam. International and domestic observers viewed Minh, as a third force that could potentially lead to a peaceful reunification with the North.

The interim President, the flamboyant General Nguyen Cao Ky was persuaded to stand as Minh's running mate by the American eminence grise John Paul Vann. Originally Nguyen wanted to contest the Presidential race as a candidate, but late President Thieu's political machinations had left him politically isolated, which Nguyen belatedly conceded after a lengthy series of conversations with Vann. Nguyen's advantage was his reputation as a staunch anti-communist with the Americans. The two men formed an effective combination, with Big Minh mitigating Nguyen’s worst excesses. In November 1968, to the surprise of the Nixon Administration, the South Vietnamese elected “Big” Minh as President, with Nguyen Cao Ky as Vice President.

Meanwhile, the Eastern border festered like an open wound in the heat, while the PAVN presence invited western reprisal, and under intense diplomatic pressure from the Americans, the right of hot pursuit was quietly granted by the Cambodian government for American forces. Refugees from the eastern provinces started heading westwards, originally in a trickle then a torrent. Once they arrived in the cities, they shared stories of their plight to all who would listen. With a rapidly expanding Army, and the Israelis unable to provide a larger training team, the Cambodians turned to the Australians who expanded their training cadre in Cambodia. Stretched by their deployments to Vietnam and Malaya, the Australian Army contingent were strengthened by ‘volunteers’ from the New Zealand Army. The decision further inflamed tension with the North Vietnamese.

Within Cambodia the political situation was untenable, as the Right demanded the Neutralists abrogate their coalition agreement with the Communists. Within Phnom Penh the citizens of the capital continued to spend their nights dancing to Sinn Sisamouth, while a small-scale bombing campaign destroyed several government offices, while junior government officials were assassinated in the eastern countryside. The continued insouciance by the Cambodians, was almost a belated reaction to the realisation that their long summer of peace was ending. The death of Ho Chi Minh in September 1969, provided the opportunity for this discussion to occur at the state funeral held on 9 September 1969. Foreign dignitaries at his funeral included: Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin and the Chinese Vice-Premier Li Hsien-nien. Their mutual attendance at the event was remarkable, considering the iciness of the relationship between the two largest members of the Communist bloc. It also signalled the level of respect afforded to the former leader of North Vietnam within the Communist world. Indeed, the ceremony itself was better suited to the death of a Vietnamese Emperor than a Communist, so it was only fitting that an elderly Prince represented Cambodia at the funeral.

The Foreign Minister Prince Sisowath Pinnoret represented Cambodia at the funeral in Hanoi, afterwards Pinnoret held a quiet discussion with the Communist Mandarin Le Duan at the Thong Nhat hotel. Although, no records have been officially kept of the meeting, it has been suggested that Sisowath attempted to renegotiate the existing arrangement to extract better terms from the North Vietnamese. The meeting ended with the arrangement in ruins, and provided the justification for the subsequent ‘Red Dawn’ offensive.

"Fight and Flourish"

Last edited by La Rouge Beret on Tue Sep 26, 2017 12:18 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 11:49 pm 

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Chapter 5: Kampong Cham – Meatgrinder on the Mekong

Lieutenant General Hoang Van Thi – PAVN, led the 312th Infantry Division. The 312th Infantry Division, was one of the six famed 'Steel and Iron Divisions', the division was supported by a regiment from the 45th Artillery Brigade and the 299th Engineers Brigade. In deference to the Santebal, or the Khmer Rouge General Staff, the Cambodian 170th Regiment, led by Comrade Mean, would participate in the offensive further augmenting his strength. Ostensibly, their inclusion was a nod to fraternal communist solidarity. However, it was due to the horrendous losses suffered by the Communist forces during the Tet offensive in 1968.

In total Hoang had 25,000 frontline soldiers under his command, if the logistical support element or tail were included, his command increased to a strength of 40,000. His enemy, the l'Armee Royale Khmere (ARK), in Military Region 2, had a strength of 10,000 soldiers that were dispersed throughout the entire region. This inefficient layout could be placed firmly at the feet of one man, Major General Lon Non, the politically-connected but militarily-incompetent Cambodian commander.

As the younger brother of the Chief of Army, his peers deemed him as corrupt, incompetent and too politically connected to remove. The American military attached described him as the worst military commander he had ever met in over thirty years of service. If the god of war smiled upon his adversaries, the strategic reserve would arrive in time adding another 4,000 soldiers. Taking into consideration the appalling state of Cambodian infrastructure, it was also possible that the Strategic Reserve would arrive too late to make a difference.

Hoang’s soldiers enjoyed a qualitative advantage across the board, with the D–30 outranging the Cambodian M101 howitzer. Furthermore, the offensive was to be led by a core of battle hardened PAVN soldiers compared to their unblooded Cambodian counterparts. The primary advantage the Cambodians had was air superiority which was confined to a mixed force of obsolete A–1H Skyraiders and Mig 17s operated by the AVRK, derisively called the Royal Phnom Penh flying club by the Cambodian Army. After experiencing the full might of American air power during the siege of Khe Sanh, ineffectual attacks from obsolete aircraft held little fear. Also, the threat was mitigated somewhat by the presence ZSU–57s accompanying his force.

It was a bold plan to launch an offensive barely a month after the annual monsoon. Phase One called for the diversionary force led by the Khmer Rouge 170th Regiment to concentrate at Khnar to draw the Cambodians into the trap. Phase Two involved the movement of the 9th Infantry Regiment from Kraek to lay siege to Kandaol Chrum. Shaping operations commenced near Kandaol Chrum and slowly increased in intensity.

Current ARK doctrine suggested they would concentrate their forces in Military Region 2 (MR 2) to reopen the supply lines to Kandaol Chrum. The 170th Regiment would be assisted by a company of Bo Doi Dac Cong, who would lead the eventual assault into Kandaol Chrum, with a D – 30 battery providing artillery fire. Ostensibly, the Khmer Rouge unit was to lend credibility to the notion of a spontaneous uprising against the feudal government, but the PAVN wished to keep their casualties low at the start of the operation.

The siege would commence with an opening salvo from the battery which would cut the highway on both sides. Once the bulk of the Cambodian Army moved east towards Kandaol Chrum, the third phase would commence with a pincer movement led by the 312th Regiment capturing Sre Seam and thereby encircling the Cambodian soldiers.

If the encirclement was achieved, the ARK would be isolated in Military Region 1 and the most fertile areas of Cambodia would fall under Hoang’s control. These rice fields would drastically shorten the PAVN’s logistical support chain in providing for his troops in their future operations in South Vietnam.

Noting that both sides relied upon the infanteer, to act as their manoeuvre element, it is unsurprising that the PAVN’s Red Dawn offensive degenerated into a battle of attrition. The monsoon had turned the jungle into a muddy quagmire, limiting the axis of advance to a single road, while the pace of the advance was determined, like Napoleon, by the pace of marching infantry.

The PAVN linked their forces together at Sre Seam to pursue the retreating l'Armee Royale Khmere (ARK) towards Kampong Cham. Although the planned encirclement of the 2nd Division had not materialised, Lieutenant General Hoang Van Thi recognised his moment had arrived. If his Army conquered Kampong Cham, he would secure Military Region 2 while simultaneously threatening the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam would be able to dictate terms to the Cambodians and he would be able to return to fighting the capitalists.

Upon being informed of the Vietnamese offensive, Lieutenant General Lon Non issued a series of contradictory orders to his forces, firstly ordering his forces to fight until the last man and the last round. A second order was then issued for units to withdraw, but only in the face of overwhelming odds. Utter confusion reigned as the Cambodian 2nd Division crumbled in the face of the Vietnamese advance. This parlous state was exacerbated by a helicopter crash transporting General Lon with his staff, converting the 2nd Division into a disorganised rabble.

There was, however, one bright spot amidst the chaos, namely the valiant rear-guard action led by Lieutenant Colonel Dien Del whose Regiment repeatedly ambushed the lead elements of the PAVN forces compelling them to go to ground whilst he then disengaged. They left improvised explosive devices along the road, which further slowed the Vietnamese advance, before repeating the process again. Lt Col Dien Del co-ordinated the withdrawal from 'his' Alouette II, zig zagging overhead, as he issued clear instructions to his subordinates. His actions were responsible for preventing a withdrawal turning into a rout.

However, as the United States Army learnt in South Vietnam, the PAVN was an adaptive organisation. After two days of delaying tactics by the Cambodians, they divided their force into two separate columns paralleling the road. If one column was attacked, the unengaged column assaulted the attacker’s exposed flank. They also recognised and identified the helicopter that flitted back and forth in front of their columns, by the volume of radio communications emanating from it.

At Tboung Khmum, the 14th battalion initiated an ambush, inflicting heavy casualties on the lead elements of the 312th Infantry Division. The southern column attacked the 14th's exposed right flank. Lt Col Dien recognised the danger to the battalion and ordered them to immediately withdraw; paradoxically saving the battalion, while dooming himself. A ZSU-57 battery engaged the slow-moving helicopter, critically wounding Lt Col Dien and damaging the aircraft. The pilot nursed the aircraft back to Kampong Cham, where Dien was evacuated to Phnom Penh.

Without his calming presence, the withdrawal descended into a disorganised rout as the men of the 2nd Division blindly retreated along Highway 7. During their flight, the Cambodians abandoned six howitzers, one scout car, ten jeeps, and two dozen vehicles; a heavy cost for such a poor country. Eventually, there was not a single Cambodian unit standing between the PAVN, and Kampong Cham.

In response, the Cambodian General Staff rushed the recently raised 5th Infantry Brigade, led by Brigadier General Sisowath Monireth, from their training at the Bamnak - Infantry Training Centre, to shore up the defence of Kampong Cham. The 5th Brigade comprised the 10th Battalion, the 153rd Battalion primarily filled with ethnic Cham, and the 181st Battalion. Arriving at the outskirts of Kampong Cham at dusk, Monireth deployed his three battalions on a north – south axis on the western edge of the city. Some historians have criticised his deployment, while ignoring the complexities of the tactical environment. Firstly, Monireth did not know where the Vietnamese would attack, consequently, his central deployment provided the greatest flexibility to respond. Secondly, the deployment safeguarded his supply lines by protecting the airfield and the road junction. Monireth then travelled to the district headquarters to assume command and to rally the city's defences.

Monireth, best epitomised by the phrase 'cometh the hour, cometh the man’, became the overall army commander in Kampong Cham. The eldest son of King Monivong, Monireth described by Antony Beevor as aloof, reserved, icy and distant. Despite his undoubted aristocratic tendencies, he remained popular with his soldiers. Partially due to the revered position of the Royal family in Cambodian society but primarily due to his military competence and penchant for removing underperforming officers.

By all accounts, when he entered the headquarters he found pure panic. Phones were left to ring unanswered, while a pair of officers argued heatedly over the map table, and several whisky bottles lay discarded on the floor. Everyone eventually fell silent as looked upon the slightly build general officer stood silently in the corner glowering at everyone. What transpired immediately after his arrival has never been revealed publicly, but discipline and order were restored by sunrise.

His first priority was to organise the immediate evacuation of the civilians from Kampong Cham, with the exception of any demobilised conscripts who were immediately reactivated. The Brigade commenced fortifying their positions while communication was re-established with parts of the 2nd Division who had been ordered to withdraw to Tonle Bet. Tonle Bet was situated on the eastern bank of the Mekong River directly opposite Kampong Cham and separated by a mile and a half of river.

Out of all the sterling work that Monireth performed in organising the defence of Kampong Cham, it is Order 21 that has attracted the most attention. It plainly stated, “Any soldier who retreated without orders, upon capture, would be subject to capital punishment. “ Those soldiers that had retreated towards Kampong Cham, without their units, and who would not return voluntarily, were placed in jail by the Gendarme. When the remnants of the 2nd Division arrived in Kampong Cham, a representative from each unit was selected and formed the firing party to execute the deserters. The deserters' remains were interred on the northern outskirts of the town near the Boeng Kok pagoda.

At dawn the lead elements of the 312th Infantry Division, spearheaded by the 141st Infantry Regiment, entered Tonle Bet. There they saw the famous ‘French Tower’, with its signal fire burning brightly and illuminating several ferries secured to a pier. Unlike General Burnside at the Battle of Fredericksburg, the PAVN forces rushed to secure the ferries and began the hour long river crossing to Kampong Cham. The speed of their advance surprised the ferry captains whose vessels were impressed into service at gunpoint to transport the vanguard across the river.

The stream of Cambodian soldiers retreating across the river had made the dockside workers accustomed to soldiers travelling via ferry. The stevedores did not realise their folly until scores of Vietnamese soldiers alighted from the ferries and placed them under armed guard. The PAVN vanguard secured the buildings and surrounded the wharf, while the ferries commenced the half hour round trip to Tonle Bet. At dusk, a section of Cambodian soldiers was sent to investigate the activity at the wharf and were fired on by the Vietnamese. Thus started the Battle of Kampong Cham. By nightfall, the PAVN had established a secure beachhead on the western bank of the Mekong River.

The following day, the Marine Royal Khmere (MRK) sortied their entire riverine force, all three harbour defence motor launches, sailing north from Phnom Penh up the Mekong River to Kampong Cham to stop the river crossing. Sailing in line astern, their ensigns snapping in the breeze, the HMDL spotted a convoy of Vietnamese soldiers and accelerated towards them. Like birds of prey, they swooped upon the defenceless convoy transforming the ferries into floatsam. HDML possessed a formidable armament of a quick firing 3 pounder gun on the bow along with an 20 mm Oerlikon cannon fixed on the stern; but their mahogany construction made them exceptionally vulnerable to small arms fire.

Because the Cambodians had lost control of the dock facilities at Kampong Cham on Day One, the HDMLs were forced to travel to and from Phnom Penh daily. The PAVN altered their resupply efforts so that they operated exclusively at night. This didn't deter the MRK who kept a HDML on station throughout the night to prevent the PAVN resupplying. That was until the first launch closed too close to a ferry and was destroyed by a volley of B–40 rockets. Following their success, the PAVN deployed mines made from artillery shells into the river which destroyed the second launch. Fortunately, the mine strike did not cause any casualties and the entire crew swam ashore, remaining in Kampong Cham as infantry for the entire campaign.

The final launch was heavily damaged by an AVRK A–1H Skyraiders misidentified the craft, oblivious to the large Cambodian Ensign flying above its wheelhouse. Thankfully, the launch limped back to Phnom Penh. Although the MRK has suffered criticism for its actions in not stopping the PAVN river- borne crossing, it didn’t possess the number of craft necessary to do so. Furthermore, its only offensive capability had been reduced to a single unit, which if Kampong Cham fell, would be needed to defend Phnom Penh.

In the skies above Kampong Cham, AVRK A–1H Skyraiders and MIG 17s operated with impunity. The AVRK soon commenced flying missions in support of the Cambodian defenders, however, it was clear that the Army and the Airforce were incapable of coordinating their operations. Consequently, the Air Force attacked anything that moved on the eastern bank of the Mekong River. Originally this had extended to the river itself, but this was suspended until after the damaged MRK had returned to Phnom Penh.

Maintaining his advantage in numbers and firepower, Lieutenant General Hoang Van Thi amended his strategy from one of manoeuver to one of attrition. He had the opportunity to pocket the entire 2nd Division and thus remove Cambodia from the war in entirety. The situation is summarised in this captured briefing note, found on a PAVN officer:

"The string in Cambodia has reached breaking point. A mass break-through - which in any case is beyond our means - is unnecessary. Within our reach there are objectives for the retention of which the Cambodian General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of Cambodia will bleed to death."

Hoang moved up the 45th Artillery Brigade with their D–30s moving into camouflaged positions to avoid the prying eyes of the Pathfinders and aerial reconnaissance. To stop the predations from the AVRK, the Vietnamese brought up two batteries of AZP S–60 towed anti-aircraft guns which soon took a fearful toll on the ARVK A-1H Skyraiders and Mig 17s. Thereafter, the AVRK operated in pairs at night time, with one plane dropping flares while the other conducted the attack. On 10 October 1969, PAVN commenced a two day bombardment of Kampong Cham.

The scale of the bombardment unleashed by the PAVN is summarised in a letter written home by Second Lieutenant Keo:

“When you hear the whistling in the distance your entire body preventively crunches together to prepare for the enormous explosions. Every new explosion is a new attack, a new fatigue, a new affliction. Even nerves of the hardest of steel, are not capable of dealing with this kind of pressure. The moment comes when the blood rushes to your head, the fever burns inside your body and the nerves, numbed with tiredness, are not capable of reacting to anything anymore. It is as if you are tied to a pole and threatened by a man with a hammer. First the hammer is swung backwards in order to hit hard, then it is swung forwards, only missing your skull by an inch, into the splintering pole. In the end you just surrender. Even the strength to guard yourself from splinters now fails you. There is even hardly enough strength left to pray....”

In the early morning of the 12th of October, the 2nd Battalion, 209th Infantry Regiment, the same unit that had overrun Beatrice at Dien Bien Phu, silently crossed the Mekong River using inflatable boats with muffled paddles, and reached western bank. They reinforced the tenuous hold of the 141st Infantry regiment. Creeping into the buildings along Preah Bat Ang Duong, the first north – south arterial road, they overwhelmed the Cambodian defenders. However, a sentry who had attended the call of nature survived the PAVN onslaught and fired a flare raising the alarm. The remaining soldiers of the 14th Battalion regrouped and immediately counter attacked. The fighting devolved into a melee as both sides struggled in the dark. Despite the ferocity of the counter attack, it was unsuccessful and the PAVN foothold expanded.

By sunset on the 12th of October, the PAVN controlled an area that extended from the night markets at the northern city fringe to the Dei Doh Pagoda on the southern fringe. Their shallow footprint represented an excellent target for an artillery strike, however Vietnamese counter battery fire had badly mauled the sole Cambodian artillery regiment over the preceding two days of fighting. The only indirect fire weapon system available to the Cambodians, in the short term, was a company of 81mm mortars which, due to ammunition shortages, were withheld to support the Cambodian strongpoints. Unfortunately, this left the ordinary Cambodian soldier powerless to respond to the methodical Vietnamese artillery fire.

With the destruction of their tube artillery, the Cambodians were forced to press the antiquated BM 13 rocket artillery into service to attack the Vietnamese. A single battery of rocket artillery mounted on Studebaker trucks reached Kampong Cham and soon made an impact. The BM 13 rockets were called the ‘Dragon’s Breath’ by the Cambodians and the distinctive whooshing sound caused tremors of fear for the Vietnamese.

To regain the initiative, Sisowath ordered his soldiers to conduct night attacks, thereby avoiding the murderous Vietnamese artillery fire, while exhausting the Vietnamese by the continuous fighting. The raids had the desired effect, with the Vietnamese liable to shoot at anything that moved, causing ammunition expenditure to rise.

On 14 October, the 2nd Battalion advanced westwards along Khemarak Phoumin Drive towards the town hall, moving in small groups from cover to cover, beneath the two-story white crenelated buildings. The main thoroughfares in Kampong Cham were relatively wide, perfectly straight and with chhë tiël tük trees lining the boulevard on either side. All of which made the thoroughfares pleasant to stroll along, but also made them excellent fire channels. Most roads were covered by a medium or a heavy machine gun. Several machine guns opened fire from concealed positions amongst the rubble, halting the enemy advance. The PAVN forces withdrew to their start point whilst sending out small reconnaissance patrols throughout the city to identify the location of the enemy positions.

The battle ebbed and flowed over the following week but, despite stiff resistance, the PAVN soldiers relentlessly advanced deeper into the city. Their advance was measured by the Generals with coloured flags representing the capture of a city block or a street, for the soldier by the number of casualties. The battle now consisted of continuous small-scale conflicts across the city, fought by assault squads of 6 – 8 strong and armed with sub machine guns, grenades and knives.

The next Vietnamese objective was the Boeung Kok market, which dominated the eastern third of the city, and was used as an observation post for Cambodian artillery strikes. A preparatory barrage was fired by the Vietnamese artillery batteries that only moved the rubble from burned out buildings. The Vietnamese advanced in two parallel columns towards the market along Preah Bat Ang Chan and Rue Kampuchea Krom. A Cambodian Forward Observer called in a mortar strike that hindered, but did not stop, the PAVN advance. Reaching the ground floor of the market, they used their rifle butts to enter the bottom floor via the boarded-up windows. Teams advanced up a stair case before being fired upon by a Cambodian rifle company from the 14th Battalion that held the market and had dug into the concrete cutting dugouts, bunkers and communication trenches. Whilst the initial attack destroyed the Cambodian element and breaking down communications, small groups of Cambodian soldiers fought on without orders. Eventually, the Vietnamese numbers overwhelmed the Cambodian defenders, resulting in the North Vietnamese flag being raised over the market. However, the cost to the PAVN force was high with the 2nd Battalion sustaining casualties more than 60%. In comparison, the Cambodians, were mauled, exhausted and short of ammunition.

The close quarters combat in ruined buildings, bunkers and sewers was dubbed rat fighting by the Vietnamese soldiers. An unknown Vietnamese officer wrote home, “Ambushes out of basements, wall remnants and ruins produced heavy casualties among our soldiers. Morale becomes lower as the meat grinder continues.”

With the market secure, the PAVN pioneers were now able to construct a bamboo bridge, that floated beneath the surface of the Mekong river, joining Tonle Bet with the island of Koh Paen. Koh Paen sits in the middle of the Mekong River approximately one mile south of Kampong Cham. During the night of 18 October, the bridge sections were lashed together and floated out onto the Mekong. The lead elements of the 5th Battalion, PAVN crossed the pontoon bridge on to the island intending to use the temporary bridge that joined the western bank. Each year during the dry season, the villagers of Koh Paen constructed a bamboo bridge linking the island to the western bank. The bridge was sturdy enough to withstand the weight of trucks loaded down with the tobacco crops and could withstand the ZSU–57s that trundled over the bridge accompanying their soldiers.

To distract the Cambodian Army's attention from the river crossing, a company of 100 PAVN commandos infiltrated the Pochetong airbase destroying most of the AVRK strike element except for four A-1H Skyraiders. Further damage to the AVRK's remaining assets was only averted due to the valiant efforts of the airfield defence regiment. In a single stroke, the AVRK's ability to fly in support of the Cambodian defenders was destroyed.

The Cambodian Army learnt from the loss of the Boeung Kok market and the remaining key buildings, such as the town hall, were turned into veritable fortresses with minefields, emplaced machine guns and breached basement walls to facilitate communication. Having sustained 70% casualties in a fortnight, the 108th Battalion were withdrawn from the front line and were replaced by the reconstituted 22nd battalion. It was placed in reserve and its strength partially restored by survivors of the decimated 14th Battalion and reactivated conscripts.

With both sides entrenched in the city, the sewers were used as a means of communication and movement. The sewers, with their promise of concealed movement, became another aspect of the wider Kampong Cham battlefield, as each side fought in the dark oblivious to the sunlight above. Regular night raids also equally wore down both sides as they attempted to wrest control of a single street or building from each other.

By the start of the third week, the Cambodian General Staff realised that the battle could, potentially, last for several months. Previously they had assumed that Sisowath would not be able to stop their advance, and on that basis had withheld deploying the strategic reserve. A rotation plan was now established to prevent the annihilation of entire units and the logistical needs of the defenders were re-evaluated. The first replacement units, as part of the ‘rotation’ system, were the 37th and 57th Battalions from the 3rd Brigade.

The Cambodian Army General Staff estimated that their forces at Kampong Cham, consumed 90 tons of supplies daily during the fighting. The primary transport aircraft operated by the AVRK was the venerable C – 47 Skytrain operated by 105 Squadron. If the Cambodian forces were to be resupplied solely by air, required at least three sorties to Kampong Cham for each C-47. This did not account for losses to ground fire, planned maintenance and the tasking requirements for the remainder of the Cambodian military. Furthermore, the Cambodians lacked the aviation infrastructure, specifically Air traffic controllers, to coordinate the sheer volume of flights needed for an aerial resupply effort.

Accordingly, most of the resupplies were carried by Army M-35 trucks on National Highway 7. This route was chosen over its counterpart, Highway 8, because it was less exposed to artillery fire. The road, like its French predecessor two generations earlier, became known as the ‘Sacred Way’. The PAVN recognised the importance of the supply route and their artillery conducting interdictory strikes to stop the flow of supplies to the defenders. To reduce the impact of the artillery strike on the resupply effort, five hundred civilians were used, at any one time, to repair the final thirty kilometres of the highway. Over the preceding one hundred kilometres, the local villages were responsible for ensuring that the road did not devolve into a mud pit and shovelled gravel to firm up the surface.

Once the trucks reached the district of Kampong Siem, to the northwest of the besieged Kampong Cham, 180 civilians working in three shifts unloaded the trucks. The same civilians carried the supplies forward, frequently under fire, to the respective battalion headquarters. In conjunction with this, pathfinder units conducted operations deep in the rear echelons of the PAVN attempting to divert men away from the front and to destroy their logistical train.

Most military attaches predicted that the Cambodians would lose the city in a matter of days, if not weeks, to the Vietnamese. When this did not happen, the world’s attention fleetingly focused on the city. Although, it was not the most respected members of the fourth estate that travelled to Kampong Cham to share the city’s story, but rather an unkempt pair of journalists named Sean Flynn and Dana Stone. They seemed a world away in both age and demeanour from the London Times correspondent Thomas Fowler, who, due to his superb French and his reputation for impartiality, interviewed the Chief on several occasions. Their contribution was achieved through highlighting the plight of the Cambodians engaged in a David vs Goliath battle which, compared to the quagmire in South Vietnam, strongly resonated with a disillusioned American populace. They were helped by a Japanese photo journalist, Kyoichi Sawada, and a Fuji television news crew, Akira Kusaka, and Yujiro Takagi.

It has not been openly acknowledged but the photos and the reports written from the battlefield allowed the Nixon Administration to commence a strategic air lift of supplies into Cambodia. This ignores the earlier assistance provided by Air America, notably when they resupplied the M101A howitzers of the 2nd Artillery Regiment with rounds, after they were reduced to a single crate of ammunition after the first week of fighting! To assist with the provision of logistical support, a RTAF air traffic control team were dispatched to Pochetong airfield to organise the resupply flights and to coordinate the resupply effort with the General Staff.

USAF Reconnaissance flights identified PAVN troop movements, with photos promptly hand delivered to the Cambodian General Staff Headquarters, inside leather briefcases of United States Army and Royal Thai Army observers. The salient point that stood out to the American servicemen was the difference in unity between the South Vietnamese and the Cambodians. Most Cambodians genuinely supported the government and their fight against the PAVN, a situation not shared by their South Vietnamese counterparts.

By contrast, the PAVN were unable to utilise the captured Cambodians as the eastern region near Vietnam had always been sparsely populated. Similar to the Chinese ‘volunteers’ during the Korean War, the PAVN utilised their soldiers as porters carrying food, ammunition and fuel on a wooden A–Frame loaded on their backs. The porters operated a relay system with one team passing its load onto another and so on down the line from the supply base on the Laotian border. Despite the air superiority enjoyed by ARVK, the PAVN continued to receive a steady stream of supplies through the campaign.

The battle extended into its second month while the respective armies continued to fight over the same streets and buildings. A front line stabilised from the Boeung Kok market to the northwest to the Boeung Kok pagoda in the south. Both sides were locked in a deadly embrace with neither side having the capability to conquer the city. The PAVN were the first to attempt to break the deadlock after conceding that their extant tactic of an infantry attack, supported by artillery, was unlikely to succeed.

Consequently, the PAVN conducted a flanking attack on the Cambodian's southern flank to encircle the town itself. A ZSU–57 company, accompanied by the reconstructed 2nd Battalion, would attempt to overrun the Kampong Cham airport thereby cutting off the defender’s resupply route.

On the morning of 10th November, the attack was launched, however, the signaller, at the Cambodian Brigade Headquarters, noticed a spike in enemy radio communication and raised the alarm. He started by identifying the radio frequencies that were in use and drew a map of the network call signs on a notepad. He waited for the PAVN to change their operators and seamlessly integrated himself into their network. The signaller spoke fluent Vietnamese due his childhood growing up in the fertile Mekong Delta, until his Khmer Krom family relocated from South Vietnam to Cambodia in 1963. After fifteen minutes, the signaller had failed two code checks, which meant that his call sign was now ignored on the radio net, and he then moved to another call sign, repeating the process. The result was that the attack was delayed by an hour, as the PAVN frantically attempted to restore the radio network. Frustrated, the PAVN force decided to continue the attack without a radio net.

Guarding the airport was a single infantry company comprised of convalescing soldiers. Despite their inferiority in both men and material, the company was ably led by Sergeant Chey, a fifteen-year army veteran. Most of the rifle company occupied shell scrapes on the north eastern edge of the runway. The remainder who were unable to do so, garrisoned the airport terminal. By midday the PAVN looked at the seemingly empty airport with a large Cambodian flag flying and filed towards it.

The defenders waited until the PAVN SPAAGs closed to within 30 yards before engaging with their RPGs. Some missed their target but most hit, destroying one SPAAG and disabling another. The SPAAGs continued to advance, raking the grass ahead with their machine guns and attempting to kill the defenders. Another SPAAG was destroyed before the remaining defenders, including Sergeant Chey, were killed. The PAVN commander, following Soviet doctrine, continued onto his second objective, the highway. As radio communications were down, he and the rest of his company were unaware of the A–1H Skyraiders prowling above providing cover to the parachute drop just west of Wat Nokor. The knight errants of the Cambodian military, the crack 1e Regiment de Parachutistes, were now marching upon the air field.

Captain So Satto spotted the SPAAGs and, ignoring Major Ambler Furry's rules, rolled in to attack them. After the initial pass, two SPAAGs lay burning in the field, while the remaining units withdrew to the start position. The paratroopers aggressively attacked the remaining PAVN force and by nightfall the entire airfield had returned to Cambodian control. Above them, the same Cambodian flag proudly flew riddled with holes. Some would say that this flag, captured in a prize-winning Sawada moment, was allegedly the inspiration behind Johnny Cash’s famous ballad ‘Ragged Old flag.’

A second drop was made on the following day by soldiers from the 31st Infantry Regiment, Royal Thai Army, who reinforced the air field. A second assault was conducted by the PAVN and for the first time since the Siamese–Vietnamese War of 1841–45, Thai and Khmer soldiers fought together against the Vietnamese invader. All of which gives further credibility to the notion, that history doesn't repeat itself, but it frequently rhymes.

The ultimate result of the PAVN assault was that the Cambodians retained control of the airfield but that it was rendered inoperative due to the threat posed by their anti-aircraft artillery. Furthermore, the PAVN were now able to consistently shell Highway 7, thereby reducing the flow of supplies to a trickle. Ultimately, the city defenders were operating on the bare minimum of supplies. However, the PAVN faced their own problems with resupply. The pendulum may have swung towards the PAVN but overall the battle lay in the balance.

The AVRK was down to four serviceable A–1H Skyraiders and approval was belatedly given for the Avon Sabres of 79 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force to fly close air support missions in support of the defenders. Considered obsolescent by the RAAF, they relocated from their base in Ubon Air base in Thailand to Pochetong airbase along with a detachment of Airfield Defence Guards. It is a tribute to their professionalism that they commenced operations within hours after the move and with their laconic charm became favourites.

The Cambodian General Staff realised that they had to act to save the city’s defenders and began to organise a relief operation that was to become known as Operation ‘Javaryamann II.’ Ultimately, the strategic reserve, dubbed the ‘Naga brigade’, deployed in conjunction with the Cambodian 1st Marine Regiment. After careful negotiation, an Arc Light strike preceded the offensive, a suggestion that was conducted via the Australian military attached with his American counterpart, before a formal approach was made.

The only question that remained, could the Cambodian defenders in Kampong Cham hold on long enough for Operation ‘Javaryamann II’ to occur?

"Fight and Flourish"

Last edited by La Rouge Beret on Tue Sep 26, 2017 12:18 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 11:51 pm 

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Chapter 6: Operation Javaryamann II

At several Command & Staff colleges ranging from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, ‘Operation Javaryamann II’ is studied in conjunction with the Israeli crossing of the Suez Canal during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Javaryamann II has also been compared to Operation Uranus - the encirclement of the German Sixth Army in 1942. Both comparisons have a measure of truth to them, but this also ignores the relative size of the operations and the unique features pertinent to Javaryamann II.

Throughout October and into November 1969, the General Staff became fixated with the grim equation of the number of men and supplies that were needed to withstand the PAVN attack at Kampong Cham. By the end of November, some six weeks into the enervating conflict, the two sides had fought each other to a standstill. It was clear that neither side possessed the capability to defeat the other via a strategy of attrition. If either side retreated, they would be encircled and destroyed by their adversary. A change in strategy was needed to break the deadlock.

From the start of November, several options were war gamed by the General Staff to break the stalemate via a war of movement. Over the following two weeks, scenarios Orange and Blue were both gamed to evaluate their likelihood of successfully breaking the deadlock. Plan Orange, conceived by Lieutenant Colonel Sak Sutsakhan and General Salan, was narrowly declared the winner by the evaluating staff, although its success was contingent on USAF intervention. The rejected Plan Blue, nevertheless, still had a part to play in the success of Operation Javaryamann II.

The PAVN, like their Cambodian adversaries, were preparing for the endgame. Consequently, the 7th Infantry Division moved away from the eastern Cambodian border towards Kampong Cham. Their mission was to complete the encirclement of the city, thereby pocketing the remaining Cambodian forces and successfully concluding the campaign for the Vietnamese. However, even the best conceived plans can go awry at the merest whiff of grapeshot.

The aims of Operation Javaryamann II was to first cut the logistical supply chain of the PAVN Division by seizing their supply depot at Kruong Song, and then encircle the PAVN forces around Tonle Bet. Phase One involved the concentration of the remaining manoeuvre elements at the small town of Neak Leung, some sixty miles south east of Phnom Penh along the Mekong River. The striking arm of Operation Javaryamann II was Battlegroup ‘Koh Ker’, which was a reinforced Brigade Group. Koh Ker included the Tank Regiment, and the 1st Motorised Infantry, 1st Royal Guard and 49th Infantry Battalions. The Operation marked the combat debut of the indigenous M24 Chaffee upgrade, which was dubbed Chkai Prey (Dhole) by the Cambodians.

Phase Two involved the manoeuvre elements conducting a rapid advance to the north east along National Highway Eleven to Kruong Song. Once Koh Ker reached Kruong Song, they would strike westwards along Route Seven and encircle the PAVN force at Tonle Bet. Once the encirclement was completed, the PAVN would still be able to fight for a time, but without an escape option their fate was sealed. Any advance limited to a single axis was exceptionally vulnerable, if the PAVN blunted the attack, they would destroy the cream of the Cambodian military. Deception was therefore key to the success of the entire operation.

The Cambodian emphasis on using deception to achieve strategic surprise was Soviet in nature. This reflected the education of several senior officers on the General Staff, who had studied at the Frunze Military Academy during Cambodia’s involvement in the Non-aligned movement. Frunze used Operations Kutuzov and Bagration as case studies. Indeed, the legacy was so strong that a passage from a Frunze textbook was displayed prominently during the planning stages of Scenario Orange and is listed below:

"After all, as Sun Tzu observed in The Art of War, 'All warfare is based on deception.' Deception is a normal and essential part of warfare. The goal or purpose of maskirovka is however surprise, vnezapnost, so the two are naturally studied together.”

The deception plan named Queen Soma, after the first ruler of the Funan Kingdom, was conceived by Prince Norodom Chantaraingsey. Norodom had voluntarily enrolled at Georgetown University to read a Juris Doctor, after his role in the aborted ‘Bangkok plot’ was uncovered by the late Prince. After returning from his studies, he had assumed command of the military intelligence directorate.

Soma involved the transfer of 49th Infantry and 1st Royal Guard Battalions from Das Kanchor to Phnom Penh as part of the rotation plan. They detrained onto the waiting trucks and continued their journey northwards towards Kampong Cham before looping southwards to Neak Leung. Additional flatbed trucks were dispatched to Kampong Cham, carrying replica BTR 152s from the 2nd Armoured Regiment, while their actual vehicles moved south at night. The BTR 152s formed a critical part of the deception plan, as the BTR 152 was also in service with the North Vietnamese. A ruse that was to be used again by the Cambodians during ‘Operation Garuda’ in 1975.

Bridging equipment was positioned at Kampong Siem, immediately behind Kampong Cham, where it was joined by the 2nd Motorised Infantry Battalion and the 29th Infantry Battalion. These movements were based on the cancelled Plan Blue. The PAVN intelligence cadre observed the troop movements, noted the increased number of raids flown by ARVK and RAAF aircraft, and concluded that a river crossing was going to be attempted to break the stalemate. In response, they massed their troops near Tonle Bet and Sre Seam. Their intelligence cadre was indeed correct that a river crossing was going to be attempted, it was just the location that was wrong.

A disinformation campaign was launched beginning with several newspapers reporting about the grounding of the Mil–4 fleet, due to a shortage of spares, following the successful Vietnamese attack on the Pochetong airbase. The banner headline wasn’t completely accurate. The operational tempo had impacted on the readiness of the helicopter fleet, but the fleet was grounded so that the postponed planned maintenance could be conducted.

To further misdirect PAVN attention away from Neak Leung, raiding operations were conducted at night in Kampong Cham and across the Mekong into Tonle Bet. The night sky above Kampong Cham reverberated from the twin jet engines of the Canberra tactical bombers from 2 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force. The MRK's sole Harbour Defence Launch, returned to Kampong Cham to interdict river borne traffic.

Despite their efforts at concealment, the strategic lift provided by the United States Air Force and Air America was critical to the operation. It is doubtful ‘Javaryamann II’ would have been successful without the support provided by the Americans. Furthermore, the intelligence provided by U2 flights, in identifying the PAVN troop concentrations, greatly assisted the staff officers planning the operation. Some historians have argued that by accepting the assistance from the United States, the Cambodians entered into a Faustian contract. Despite the criticism of this arrangement, it led to the survival of the Cambodian state in the short term, and that was an outcome not guaranteed by any other measure.

At midnight on Monday 10 November 1969, the 1st Battalion Parachute Khmer conducted an airborne drop on Ou Reang, the largest town prior to Kruong Song. The air-drop originally planned to use AVRK C-47 Sky trains, which due to the size of the operation, meant nationalising Royal Cambodian Airway C-47’s. However, the drop was completed using USAF C-130s, following last minute approval, which ameliorated the need to call up the national carrier. Fortunately, the Cambodian paratroopers, having completed their parachute training with the Indonesians, were already jump qualified with the far larger C130.

At 2:00 a.m, a single cell of B-52 bombers, from the 4258th Strategic Wing flying from U Tapo in Thailand, conducted a strike on Tonle Bet. An hour later, a second cell of B-52s, flying from U Tapo, attempted a decapitation strike against the PAVN Headquarters located at Sre Seam. In the lead up to the B-52 strike, several raids were conducted by RAAF Canberras and four AVRK A -1 Skyraiders around Tonle Bet. However, these raids were not flown in sufficient quantity to have a lasting impact on the PAVN forces. A bombing raid from a B 52 cell was another matter entirely.

A U.S. Army pontoon bridge was erected just north of Neak Leung, replacing the bridge destroyed by the Corps of Engineers in October. As planned, Koh Ker crossed the Mekong at 5:15 a.m, some twenty minutes before sunrise. Advancing towards Kruong Song, they hoped that the key points along their route had been secured.

Critical to the encirclement, the parachute demi brigade were responsible for securing Prey Veng and Ou Reang, thereby allowing a rapid advance by Koh Ker. Krong Prey Veng, the first town along the Highway, was captured by the 2nd Battalion Parachute Khmer with minimal casualties, following an early morning air assault flown by ARVK Mil 4 from 106 Squadron. After a brief fight, the 1 BPK secured Ou Reang, opening the way to Kruong Song. Surprisingly, PAVN headquarters was slow to grasp the threat posed by the Cambodian attack. That they failed to accurately appreciate its size should be a testament to the success of Operation Soma.

As ‘Koh Ker’ raced to the north east passing waving Cambodian civilians, a third B52 cell conducted another air strike on Krong Suong at 11:00 a.m. ’Koh Ker’ encountered minimal resistance until it entered Krong Suong at midday. Whilst there were still pockets of resistance from PAVN machine gun emplacements and artillery, the Arc Light strikes destroyed any organised defence. At dusk, ‘Koh Ker’ continued its westwards advance towards Tonle Bet.

The speed of the Cambodian offensive meant that only the PAVN headquarters group at Srae Seam withdrew towards Tonle Bet and, even then, their rear echelon units sacrificed themselves to allow this to occur. In recent years, the bravery of the PAVN soldiers has been recognised by Cambodian scholars. After another day of pitched fighting, Srae Seam was liberated and ‘Koh Ker’ continued their advance westwards towards Tonle Bet.

Most histories focus on the individual bravery of soldiers during an attack, or the successful flanking attack launched by a dashing cavalry officer, but too often they ignore the logistical chain that allows the arms corps to be effective. After all, as the Commandant of the US Marine Corps General Robert H. Barrow once remarked, “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” The ARVK and ‘Air America’ pilots, who ensured that the bullets, beans and bandages were well stocked, were equally critical to the Operation as the soldier at the front. Indeed, the Mil–4s and the UH1s ensured that the rapid advance of ‘Koh Ker’ continued.

The remaining PAVN forces recognised the danger of encirclement and attempted to withdraw northwards along the Mekong. Concurrent with the encirclement of Tonle Bet by ‘Koh Ker’, the 2nd Motorised Infantry Battalion and the 29th Battalion, mounted in Zil trucks, occupied Chirou Kraom. 10 miles north of Tonle Bet on the eastern bank of the Mekong River, their intervention blocked any potential retreat by the Vietnamese. By the third day, the remaining PAVN forces were encircled and the Cambodians continued to close the noose ever tighter around their necks.

Artillery barrages and air raids were continuously launched on the besieged PAVN forces culminating with the surrender, by Colonel Ngo, of all PAVN forces in Tonle Bet and Kampong Cham on 6 December 1969. The chief Brigadier General Sisowath received the surrender, an event that was reported by several newspapers including the London Times. The event would have received greater acclaim, but a Soviet nuclear test largely overshadowed the surrender. However, the capture of large numbers of PAVN soldiers raised the problem of what should be done with them. In the end, an arrangement was reached whereby the prisoners were sent to a non-aligned country, in exchange for materials granted from the Communist bloc.

Operation Rockcrusher

Most historical accounts of the Red Dawn offensive ignore the support provided by the United States and South Vietnamese forces to Cambodia. However, the support only arrived once the Khmers stabilised their front line, forestalling the rumours of their impending collapse. This was achieved in part by the embedded American reporters televising images of the cheerful Cambodian soldier, valiantly fighting against the North Vietnamese. The image of a small nation fighting off a larger aggressor, still resonated strongly with middle America and, perceptions changed over the month. Covertly, the American military began to expand their logistical support of Cambodia, purely to wear down the North Vietnamese.

In response to events in Cambodia, President Nixon believed that the situation was developing to allow the possibility of an American response. Nixon was also adamant that some action be taken to support, "The only government in Cambodia in the last twenty-five years that had the guts to take a pro-Western stand."

The President then solicited proposals for actions from the Joint Chief of Staffs and MACV, who presented him with a series of options; a naval quarantine of the Cambodian coast, the launching of South Vietnamese and American airstrikes, the expansion of hot pursuit across the border by ARVN forces, or a ground invasion by ARVN, U.S. forces, or both.

In November 1969 at the height of the Kampong Cham offensive, the Cambodian Prime Minister made a formal request for American and South Vietnamese assistance. MACV still maintained 330,648 U.S. Army and 55,039 Marine Corps troops in South Vietnam, most of whom were concentrated in 81 infantry and tank battalions. Many of them were preparing to leave the country or expected to shortly leave. Consequently, there were unavailable for immediate combat operations.

Despite the encirclement of the PAVN soldiers around Tonle Bet, 30,000 soldiers remained in Cambodian territory. Operation Javaryamann II created space for a follow-on operation 'Yasovarman I,' subject to negotiations with the American Department of State. MACV and ARVN HIGH Command decided to seize the opportunity presented to them, to revisit their operational plan to clear out the PAVN logistical hub centred in the Parrot’s Beak.

The Parrot’s Beak was the name given to a salient in the Svay Rieng Province, located in the south east of Cambodia that protrudes into Hau Nghia and Kien Tuong Provinces, approximately 65 kilometres north west of Saigon. The Parrot’s Beak acted as a logistical base area for the People’s Army of Vietnam and, a terminus point for the Truong Son Trail. PAVN force established two logistical hubs within the Parrot’s Beak dubbed Base Area 367 and 706.

The Vietnamese commenced cross border operations called Operation Toan Thang (Complete Victory) 41, which involved several battalion sized operations aimed at clearing out any PAVN presence within 15 to 20 kilometres of the South Vietnamese border. On 20 November 2,000 South Vietnamese troops, primarily comprised of Armoured Cavalry units, advanced into the Parrot's Beak, killing 144 PAVN troops.

On the 22nd, President Nixon authorized American air support for the South Vietnamese operations. These incursions into Cambodian territory were reconnaissance missions in preparation for a larger-scale effort being planned by MACV and the Joint General Staff, subject to authorization by President Nixon.

Leveraging off their limited success in Operation Toan Thang 41, South Vietnamese forces crossed the border into the Parrot’s Beak on 30 November as part of Operation Toan Thang 42. The ARVN forces assigned to this operation included, 12 ARVN infantry battalions consisting of approximately 8,700 troops, from (two armoured cavalry squadrons from III Corps and two from the 25th Division and 5th Infantry Division, and four Ranger battalions from the 2nd Ranger Group).

The offensive was under the command of Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri, the commander of III Corps, who had a reputation as one of the most aggressive and competent ARVN generals. President Minh awarded General Tri command of the ARVN operation to clear out enemy bases in the Parrots Beak and, appointed General Than to lead the four infantry armour task forces from IV Corps. Hard work and careful planning were as much a part of his accomplishment as his inspiring presence on the battlefield.

Tri was a sound tactician, whom was unsatisfied unless he personally directed the battle. For men starved of leadership the assurance that Tri's helicopter might set down whenever they were in trouble or stalled worked marvels with their morale. “Tri was a tiger in combat, South Vietnam's George Patton,” General Westmoreland later wrote in admiration.

During their first two days in Cambodia, ARVN units had several sharp encounters with PAVN forces. However, the North Vietnamese forewarned by previous ARVN incursions, fought several successful delaying actions to allow the bulk of their forces to escape westwards. The ARVN operation soon settled down to become a search and destroy mission, with South Vietnamese troops combing the countryside in small patrols looking for PAVN supply caches. Phase II of the operation commenced with the arrival of elements of the 9th Infantry Division.

Four tank-infantry task forces attacked into the Parrot's Beak from the south. After three days of operations, ARVN claimed 1,010 PAVN troops killed, with 204 prisoners captured for the loss of 66 ARVN dead and 330 wounded. Overall, it represented a major success for the often-denigrated ARVN. General Tri was feted in the Saigon press, although rumours of corruption underpinning his extravagant lifestyle began to circulate. Emboldened by ARVN success, the Americans planned an even larger offensive named Operation Rockcrusher by MACV and Toan Thang 43 by ARVN.

On 1 December Operation Rockcrusher commenced with an Arc Light strike from 36 B-52 Stratofortresses, who dropped 774 tons of bombs along the southern edge of the Fishhook. This was followed by an hour of massed artillery fire, and another hour of air strikes by tactical fighter-bombers. At 10:00 a.m., the 1st Air Cav Division, the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment, the 1st ARVN Armoured Cavalry Regiment, and the 3rd ARVN Airborne Brigade assaulted into the Cambodian province of Kampong Cham.

Task Force Shoemaker, named after General Robert M Shoemaker, the Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, attacked the communist stronghold with 10,000 U.S. and 5,000 South Vietnamese troops. The operation utilised mechanised infantry and armoured units as the Operation’s manoeuvre element. Shoemaker would drive into the province, where they would join up with ARVN airborne and U.S. airmobile units that had been lifted into the province earlier by helicopter. The prior success of Operations Toan Thang 41 and 42, was not replicated as the PAVN outposts were conspicuously vacant as the mechanised American columns bypassed them. Some speculated that the Communists had been forewarned of the impending offensive.

A North Vietnamese defector in 1976, confirmed that the North Vietnamese had ample notice of Operation Rockcrusher. A 17 November directive from the headquarters of the B-3 Front, captured during the incursion, ordered PAVN/NLF forces to "break away and avoid shooting back...Our purpose is to conserve forces as much as we can". The only surprised party amongst the participants in Operation Rockcrusher were the Cambodians, who had not been informed by Washington or Saigon concerning the impending invasion of their country. The Cambodian government had given their approval for limited incursions into Svay Rieng Province, but not a fully-fledged invasion. Adding insult to injury, they were only informed of the scale of the Operation, due to an inadvertent conversation with a visiting American Army Officer to their General Staff.

Enraged, the Cambodians approached MACV and, were belatedly brought into the strategic considerations of Operation Rockcrusher, after it had commenced. The Cambodian General Staff recognised the threat posed by the possibility of the North Vietnamese retreating westwards, and deployed the reconstituted Paratrooper demi brigade to Ponhea Kraek, supported by the 17th Infantry Battalion, along with two tank platoons from the Royal Tank Regiment, and an artillery battery, equipped with 105mm howitzers, from the 2nd Artillery Group. The junior tank platoon commander was a newly commissioned Second Lieutenant, which by itself would not have been notable, except for the fact it was Crown Prince Nordom Ranariddh. Ponhea Kraek is located forty-eight kilometres east of Kampong Cham and fifty-seven kilometres west from Tay Ninh, South Vietnam. Colonel Les Kossem, an ethnic Muslim Cham officer, assumed command of the hastily organised Cambodian brigade. The Cambodians were air lifted into the position in the late afternoon of 2 December 1969.

Meanwhile the Americans fought their only conventional battle on 1 December at the town of Snoul, the suspected terminus of the Sihanouk Trail at the junction of Routes 7, 13, and 131. Elements of the U.S. 11th Armoured Cavalry, along with their supporting helicopters came under PAVN fire while approaching the town and its airfield. When a massed American attack was met by heavy resistance, the Americans withdrew beyond danger close range, called in air support and blasted the town for two days, reducing it to rubble. During the action, Brigadier General Donn A Starry, commander of the 11th Armoured Cavalry, was wounded by grenade fragments and evacuated.

On the following day, elements of the U.S. 1st Air Cavalry division entered what came to be known as "The City", southwest of Snoul. The two-square mile PAVN complex contained over 400 thatched huts, storage sheds, and bunkers, each of which was packed with food, weapons, and ammunition. There were truck repair facilities, hospitals, a lumber yard, 18 mess halls, a pig farm, and even a swimming pool. Forty kilometres to the northeast, other Air Cavalry elements discovered a larger base. Nicknamed "Rock Island East" after the U.S. Army's Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, the area contained more than 6.5 million rounds of anti-aircraft ammunition, 500,000 rifle rounds, thousands of rockets, several General Motors trucks, and large quantities of communications equipment. Much of the captured enemy material was turned over to the MACV Special Support Group for Cambodia, where it was issued to Cambodian Forces.

The one thing that was not found by the marauding Americans was COSVN. On 1 December, a tape of Nixon's announcement of the incursion was played for General Abrams, "who must have cringed," when he heard the president stated that the capture of the headquarters was one of the major objectives of the operation. MACV intelligence knew that the mobile and widely- dispersed headquarters would be difficult to locate. In response to a White House query before the fact, MACV had replied that "major COSVN elements are dispersed over approximately 110 square kilometres of jungle" and that "the feasibility of capturing major elements appears remote".

After the first week of operations, additional battalion and brigade units were committed to the operation, so that between 6 and 24 December, a total of 90,000 allied troops (including 33 U.S. manoeuvre battalions) were conducting operations inside Cambodia. Due to increasing political and domestic turbulence in the U.S., President Nixon issued a directive on 7 December limiting the distance and duration of U.S. operations to a depth of 30 kilometres and, set a deadline of 30 December 1969 for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces to South Vietnam.

However, it was to be the Cambodians and not the Vietnamese or the Americans, who fought a large scale conventional battle during the campaign. A PAVN regiment fought a delaying action, which preoccupied the American advance westwards, while most PAVN forces fled westwards away from the advancing American forces, prior to moving northwards.

Their intelligence network discerned that the Cambodians had inserted an Infantry Brigade as a blocking force at Ponhea Kraek. Thiếu tá (Major) Duong decided to shatter the Western blocking force, thereby creating the time and space needed for the withdrawal to occur. Their secondary goal was to break the encirclement of the PAVN forces at Kampong Cham.

The Cambodian force were inexperienced in establishing a fire support base, and the entire operation was poorly coordinated. Which reflected the haphazard nature of their tasking, causing considerable delay with participating units and scattering them across the position. For example, the American Army airlift inserted an artillery battery from the 2nd Artillery Group, before the Cambodian Fire Support Base was established.

An impromptu landing zone was constructed from a small clearing some 1,000 metres to the south west of the Fire Support Base. Due to the number of taskings for 105 Squadron, the 17th Infantry battalion was only airlifted late in the afternoon, landing west of the FSB. Command posts were established and shell scrapes were dug, while a lack of materials precluded the construction of overhead protection. 30 calibre machine guns were placed on the perimeter, but their arcs of fire were not properly established due to the lack of moonlight. Recognising the difficulties with their position, the Cambodians posted night sentries, and resolved to tie in the defences in the morning.

During the evening, Bravo Company from 1 BPK (1st Battalion Parachute Khmer) encountered a small enemy patrol to the east, while the paratroopers from Alpha Company detected 20 North Vietnamese with their newly issued Starlight scopes. After Midnight, a brief firefight ensured, in the morning it became clear that the enemy had been marking assault lanes towards their position.

Another PAVN patrol walked into an ambush established by the Delta Company 1BPK, before breaking contact by firing a rocket propelled grenade at the Cambodians. Despite several minor clashes, the North Vietnamese successfully bypassed the outlying Cambodian rifle companies, and began to dig in within 250 metres of the main position.

Finally, at 3:30 a.m. on 3 December 1969, the North Vietnamese launched their attack with a whirlwind barrage lasting five minutes. Following a ten-minute pause, four incandescent flares illuminated the battlefield. Firing from the hip PAVN soldiers surged forward, and overran the Para’s Mortar Platoon. The artillery battery began firing in support of the besieged paratroopers, during an earlier reconnaissance the Vietnamese had observed that the guns were laid east. Due to the previous firing mission, the guns faced towards the axis of assault. Moving in long straight lines, across a frontage of 200 metres, the main North Vietnamese attack assaulted the gun position, while the gunners fired over open sights with Splintex rounds. Thousands of darts ripped through the Vietnamese ranks, breaking up their attack into smaller groups.

Within the confusion, follow up parties hesitated and milled about in the mortar position waiting for instruction. The Tank platoon engaged with canister rounds firing across the front of the mortars, relieving the immediate pressure on the mortar position. In response, several rocket propelled grenades were fired at the Tank platoon, destroying a single tank and immobilising a second.

Faced with the possibility of immediate annihilation, the Mortar Platoon 2IC requested that the tanks fire directly on their position. As the North Vietnamese attempted to turn the captured mortars against the Cambodians, fletchette darts swept the area, clearing everything above ground level, causing heavy casualties amongst the attackers. Elsewhere the PAVN assault reached the Cambodian gun position, overrunning two guns as hand to hand fighting broke out amongst the emplacements. A band of PAVN soldiers led by Corporal Nguyen, dashed forwards towards # 4 gun, destroying it with a satchel charge.

The gun position officer 1st Lieutenant Nhek coordinated the defence, and the Cambodians finally drove off the determined Vietnamese assault with grenades and small arms fire. Ably supported by further canister rounds fired from the Tank platoon. Although the North Vietnamese were well trained and equipped, they were unable to prevail against the superior firepower of the Cambodian paratroopers, particularly the tank detachment, which turned the tide of the battle in their favour.

Fire support was coordinated by 1 BPK command post and fire support coordinating centre, which controlled the integral fires from the Field battery, and the 81 mm mortars. The gunners soon ran out of Splintex rounds, and were forced to use high explosive shells with delayed fuses. The guns were depressed to 40 to 50 meters in front of the emplacement, which caused the rounds to ricochet and, explode in the air above the assaulting force.

During the engagement, two C – 47 Spooky gunships came on station assisting the Cambodians, armed with mini guns that fired thousands of rounds into the assaulting forces. After an hour of intense fighting, by 5:00 a.m. the enemy withdrew to the north east carrying their dead and wounded. The Vietnamese launched a spoiling attack on the Cambodian position to stop them from closely following their retreat. With the guns laid in, the attack was quickly broken.

The Cambodian guns fired on the likely avenues of withdrawal, which caused greater casualties. The Cambodians then swept out the front of their position, locating several North Vietnamese soldiers. Colonel Kossem then organised the evacuation of the Cambodian dead and wounded by helicopter. The PAVN offensive halted the next day, as the Vietnamese melted away northwards having failed to shatter the western blocking force, and to breakout the encircled PAVN army.

This marked the end of the Red Dawn offensive for the Cambodians, or the Kampong Cham campaign as the soldiers called it.

"Fight and Flourish"

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Chapter Seven: Who’ll Stop the Rain?

Why? Was the key question asked by Cambodians, to identify how the country had become embroiled in the fratricidal conflict between the two Vietnamese states. It was a question that would have remained unanswered, were it not for an unmarked package that was delivered to the offices of the Phnom Penh Post and the national broadcaster NHK. Inside the package, was a copy of an agreement signed by the Cambodian Prime Minister Norodom Kantol, and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam Le Duan. The document stated that the North Vietnamese could establish sanctuaries within Cambodia, and permitted the transhipment of supplies to the sanctuaries via the port located at Sihanoukville. A timestamped photo showed the two leaders smiling as they signed the document, lent further credibility to the authenticity of the document. Although such an agreement had always been rumoured to exist, there was conclusive evidence of the arrangement between the two states.

Presented with an opportunity, the journalists rushed to include an article in the afternoon edition. That single image incited an impromptu riot to gather out the front of the National Assembly, calling for the immediate dismissal of the Prime Minister. The mood of the crowd turned violent, as cars were overturned, and several fires were lit. Adding further ammunition to the protestors’ anger was the news that Khieu Samphan, along with the remaining socialist faction, had evaded arrest, and were now safely in the newly declared Democratic Republic of Kampuchea.

The Gendarme was deployed to safeguard the National Assembly, and at 4:00 p.m. were ordered to disperse the crowd. Initially, they asked for the crowd to disperse peacefully by loud hailer, a request the crowd ignored. Pebbles were thrown at the Police Officers by the crowd, injuring several officers, as the crowd surged towards the outnumbered Police. Forming a protective human barrier around their injured colleagues, the Police fired a volley of warning shots into the air. The crowd broke, trampling innocent bystanders in their panic.

Unfortunately for Cambodia, the entire incident was captured by several foreign journalists, who reported that with news of the secret arrangement made public, Cambodia appeared to be on the verge of civil war. Rioting over the news that the Cambodian government had actively allowed the North Vietnamese to establish bases on their soil, and that the same soldiers had caused the deaths of so many Cambodians, incited the riot.

During a midnight session at the National Assembly, an elder statesman Sisowath Pinnoret, was unanimously elected as the interim Prime Minister, pending national elections. Sisowath personally renegotiated the agreements with the United States of America, Thailand and South Vietnam. Indeed, he was so persuasive during the negotiating sessions, that his diplomatic skill was specifically acknowledged within Henry Kissinger’s Memoirs.

The American Vice President Spiro Agnew arrived in Phnom Penh to sign the agreements, at the formal ceremony the Secret Service Agents drew their weapons on an unidentified man that approached the table. The man turned out to be the Cambodian Prime Minister, which could have resulted in a serious diplomatic incident, if the Cambodian had not had such a good sense of humour. The Agreement increased the amount of financial aid sent to Cambodia, which used the monies to fund infrastructure works, health and education packages.

However, the agreement also expanded the American Military Assistance Group in Cambodia, both in terms of budget and assigned staff. General John Vessey Junior was seconded from the US Army Support Command – Thailand, to lead the expanded Mission. Vessey had served in the Army from WW 2 to the present, and was responsible for creating a military that could successfully defend Cambodia from a conventional attack. Which would be a difficult task in normal circumstances, but seemed almost an impossible undertaking, considering the American withdrawal from South Vietnam.

However, his first undertaking was far simpler, namely to organise the integration of new weapons into the Cambodian military, and to help rebuild the Army hollowed by their defence of Kampong Cham. The Cambodians received new equipment, with the Naga Brigade receiving M113s Armoured Personnel Carriers. Initially, the two battalions were structured like an American Mechanised Rifle Company comprised of three rifle troops with four APCS. A support troop had four APCS, with two 81 mm mortars, and two 57mm recoilless rifles; the mortars could be fired dismounted or from a mount fitted inside M113s.

The Navy received 36 PBRs, Swift Boats, River Monitors and Landing Craft, supervised by Lieutenant Commander Harry Andersen, USN. Harry worked closely with the Chief of Navy Commodore Vong Sarendy, a sharp witted, intelligent officer, who was well regarded by all. The Air Force acquired A – 37 Dragonflies to replace the A – 1 Skyraiders lost during the campaign. The continued operation of the Mig 17 PF, particularly sourcing spare parts, proved difficult after ceasing links with the Communist world. In the interim, four aircraft were dissembled to meet the existing maintenance needs, while a clandestine arrangement was made to source parts from Egypt. However, the Air Force recognised that this was an interim arrangement at best.

Considering their experience during the Red Dawn offensive, Adam Tzivoni recommended that the Cambodians replace their Mig 17 Frescos with a modified A – 4 B Skyhawk from former US Navy stocks. The thrust of his argument was that the key role of the AVRK was to conduct close air support missions in support of the Army. Consequently, it was unlikely that the Air Force would be required to perform air superiority operations, and if needed the USAF would be able to conduct said operations. The A – 4 B Skyhawk was the perfect choice as it provided a light attack platform, with a secondary air to air capability.

Although, former American Army Hueys were offered to Cambodia, they continued to operate the Mil 4 as their primary trooper transport, utilising the refurbished Hueys in a gunship role. To assist with rebuilding the Army, considering its horrific losses, Vessey came up with a novel solution, as American units were withdrawn from South Vietnam, he petitioned MACV to allow the Battalion Commander, if suitable, to be seconded to his advisory effort. The adviser finishing a six-week Khmer language course, before completing a twelve-month stint as an advisor. Although, the military advisory mission to Cambodia was far smaller than their Vietnamese equivalent, their advisers were better able to mentor their counterparts.

In conjunction with the Cambodian General Staff, Vessey reviewed their ‘Holding Defence’ strategy considering the recent Red Dawn offensive and, made the following observations.

1. The strike corps was too far away from the international border, making it difficult to deploy in a timely fashion.

2. The long duration needed to mobilise the strike corps prevented strategic surprise.

3. The holding corps' lack of offensive power along the international border prevented it from engaging in significant offensives.

Vessey realised that the Army needed time to rebuild itself, with several units sustaining casualties of 40 – 60 % during the recent campaign. This was balanced by the realisation that despite the success of Operations Rockcrusher and Yasovarman, significant pockets of Kampuchean Revolutionary Army units and PAVN soldiers remained within Military Region Two. Their presence prevented impeded the flow of trade along the Mekong River, which adversely impacted upon the Cambodian and Vietnamese economies.

Noting the weakness of the Cambodian Army, the initial counter insurgency action was led by the Marine Brigade, which had suffered fewer casualties than the Army. However, a single Brigade was inadequate to conduct the manpower intensive strategies required to be used in a successful counter insurgency campaign. A formal request was made to the Thai government, that the Queen’s Panther Division be temporarily deployed in Military Region Two for twelve months.

After considering the request, it was approved and the Thais began to conduct counter insurgency operations. The skills learnt fighting a counter insurgency campaign against the Khmer Serei, were utilised to great effect against the remaining North Vietnamese remnants and Khmer Rouge in Eastern Cambodia. The Thais also brought their own considerable counter insurgency knowledge from their own Communist insurgency.

The Cambodian and Thai forces adopted an oil spot approach, concentrating their forces at a single point, and then gradually expanding the secured zone. The origins of the strategy originated from Marshal Hubert Lyautey, the main theoretician of French colonial warfare and counter-insurgency strategy. Indeed, the Americans had also adopted the oil spot approach with limited success with the Strategic Hamlet Program, and several Cambodian officers utilised the tactics developing during their prior service within the French Army.

Vehicle and personnel checkpoints were introduced, along with national identity cards within Military Region Two. The requirement to carry an ID card with a photo and thumbprint, compelled the Communists to abandon their original three-phase political-military strategy and caused divisive infighting among their leaders over how to respond to this effective population-control measure. By November 1970 the Thai Division was withdrawn replaced by the reconstituted Cambodian 3rd Division, who continued the successful counter insurgency program.

One of the contributing factors to the success of the counter insurgency campaign within the Region, was the friendly relationship between the Cambodians and the South Vietnamese IV Corps Commander General Ngo Quang Truong. Both sides shared intelligence information, and conducted simultaneous operations against the remaining enemy enclaves. An approach that began to pay dividends.

Indeed, Military Region Two was then used as a training ground for the Cambodian Army to work up the rebuilt units, before facing the Khmer Rouge and the PAVN forces in Military Region One. By 1972 the security situation in the eastern border with South Vietnam had improved to the point, that trade once more flowed freely along the Mekong. Although, riverborne trade was still escorted by the Cambodian and South Vietnamese navies until 1980.

However, Cambodian operations were not solely confined to their country, but also included limited participation in operations in Southern Laos. Their initial contribution was supplying an airfield at Stung Treng allowing USAF B – 57s Canberras, as part of the Patricia Lynn program, to conduct interdiction missions against the Truong Son trail in South Eastern Laos.

Apart from providing facilities to the Allied war effort, in September 1970 Cambodian paratroopers participated in Operation Tailwind, a covert incursion into south eastern Laos. The operation’s purpose was to create a diversion for the Royal Lao Army’s offensive and, to exert pressure on the occupation forces of the People’s Army of Vietnam.

Tailwind involved company sized element of the US Army Special Forces, 2nd Battalion Paratroopers and Montangnard commandos of the Military Assistance commando (Hatchet Force of the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Studies and Observation Group. On the back of the success of Operation Tailwind and Operation Rockcrusher, prompted ARVN and MACV planners to consider another larger Operation.

Lam Son 719

ARVN launched Lam Son 719 using five South Vietnamese divisions, as a large-scale raid into southern Laos to disrupt the PAVN’s logistical hub. Originally, the charismatic Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri was nominated to lead the attack. However, charges of corruptions were brought against him on the eve of the operation, meant that he was stood down for the duration of the investigations. The investigation itself was rumoured to have been instigated by the Vice President Cao Ky, whom had developed an intense dislike towards General Do Cao Tri. The Vietnamese Joint General Staff nominated Lieutenant General Nguyen Truong as his replacement.

On 7 January 1971 MACV was authorized to begin detailed planning for an attack against PAVN Base Areas 604 and 611 in Southern Laos. The task was given to the commander of US XXIV Corps, Lieutenant General James W. Sutherland, Jr., who had only nine days to submit it to MACV for approval. The operation would consist of four phases. During the first phase U.S. forces inside South Vietnam would seize the border approaches and conduct diversionary operations. Secondly, an ARVN armoured/infantry attack would advance along Route 9 toward the Laotian town of Tchepone, which Intelligence indicated was the nexus of Base Area 604.

A series of leap-frogging airborne assaults protected the northern and southern flanks of the main column. During the third phase, search and destroy operations would be conducted within Base Area 604, destroying the Communist infrastructure. Finally, the South Vietnamese force would withdraw along Route 9, or through the A Shau Valley. General Abrams wanted the battlegroup to remain in Laos, until the rainy season commenced in May. This would enable a more complete destruction of the North Vietnamese infrastructure, while the rain would mask their retreat.

Because of the justified assumption that the South Vietnamese military had been penetrated by Communist agents, the initial planning for the mission occurred over a few weeks, equally divided between the American and Vietnamese high commands. At the lower levels, it was limited to the intelligence and operational staffs of ARVN's I Corps, under Lieutenant General Do Cao Tri, who was to command the operation, and XXIV Corps, headed by General Sutherland.

However, it was not the first time that politics interfered with ARVN’s operational conduct. Under the instigation of the Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, General Do Cao Tri had been covertly investigated for corruption, and was formally stood down as I Corps Commander pending a service enquiry. The Joint General Staff appointed General Nguyen Truong, the Commander of IV Corps, to command the ARVN attack. To preserve secrecy, Nguyen received a covert mission advising that his family was ill and to return home to Saigon. Nguyen handed over control of IV Corps to his subordinate and reported to Saigon.

Upon arrival at the airport Truong was whisked away to MACV headquarters, where he was briefed by the South Vietnamese Joint General Staff in Saigon. His new chief of operations was forbidden to attend the meeting, despite having assisted to write the very plan under discussion. At this meeting, Nguyen’s operational area was restricted to a corridor no wider than fifteen miles on either side of Route 9 and, to penetrate no further into Laos than Tchepone.

Nguyen recognised that command, control, and coordination of the operation would be difficult, especially in the highly politicized South Vietnamese command structure. Where the support of key political figures was critically important in promotion to and retention of command positions. A fact that his predecessor, with his public feud with the Vice President, had found out to his detriment. Lieutenant General Le Nguyen Khang, the Vietnamese Marine Corps commander and protege of Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky, whose troops were scheduled to participate in the operation, was senior to General Nguyen, who had the support of President Minh. The same situation applied to Lieutenant General Du Quoc Dong, commander of ARVN Airborne forces also scheduled to participate in the operation. However, both men respected General Nguyen, and provided their full support for the Operation.

Noting the compressed timeframe of his appointment, Nguyen appealed directly to the President, requesting that the operation be postponed for a month to enable the individual units an opportunity to work together. Consequently, this request was belatedly granted and the Operation was postponed to 9 March 1970. Individual units were only informed of their participation in the Operation on 17 January, and the Airborne Division that was to lead the operation belatedly received detailed plans on 2 February.

The training period was critical, since many of the units, particularly the Airborne and the Marines, had worked as separate battalions and brigades and had no experience maneuvering or cooperating in adjoining areas. A three-week exercise was scheduled for both Divisions to provide them the opportunity to practice within a multi division structure. The pause also enabled teams from the Studies and Observation Group to reconnoitre Route 9, which revealed that Route 9 was usable only by tracked vehicles. A fact that changed the logistical support provided to the Operation.

According, to the assistant commander of the US 101st Airborne Division, "Originally planning was rushed, and handicapped by excessive security restrictions, after all you don’t have to be a genius to work out which way an attack would come. Once Nguyen was appointed the pace of the Operation slowed considerably, which enabled us to conduct training in conjunction with the Vietnamese. To my mind it was this month that ultimately proved critical to the success of the Operation." The U.S. portion of the operation was named Dewey Canyon II, referencing Operation Dewey Canyon conducted by U.S. Marines in the north-western part of South Vietnam in 1969. The Americans hoped that the reference to the previous operation would confuse Hanoi as to the actual target of the proposed incursion.

The ARVN's portion was given the title Lam Son 719, after the village of Lam Son, birthplace of the legendary Vietnamese patriot Le Loi, who had defeated an invading Chinese army in 1427. The numerical designation came from the year, 1971, and the main axis of the attack, Route 9. The decisions had been made at the highest levels and planning had been completed. The South Vietnamese were about to begin their largest, most complex, and most important operation of the war.

On 29 January President Nixon agreed with the request to postpone the Operation until March, and gave his final approval for the operation. On 28 February 1971, Operation Dewey Canyon II was launched, however any offensive planning by the U.S. was limited by the passage on 29 December 1970 of the Cooper-Church Amendment, which prohibited U.S. ground forces and advisors from entering Laos. Dewey Canyon II would, therefore, be conducted within territorial South Vietnam to reopen Route 9 all the way to the old Khe Sanh Base, which had been abandoned by U.S. forces in 1968.

A reactivated Khe Sanh base would then serve as the logistical hub and airhead of the ARVN incursion. U.S. combat engineers were tasked with clearing Route 9 and resurrecting Khe Sanh as an operational base, while infantry and mechanized units secured a line of communications along the length of the road. American artillery units would support the ARVN effort within Laos from the South Vietnamese side of the border, while Army logisticians coordinated the entire supply effort for the South Vietnamese. Air support for the incursion would be provided by the aircraft of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. U.S. Army aviation units were tasked with providing complete helicopter support for the ARVN operation.

American forces earmarked for these missions included: four battalions of the 108th Artillery Group; two battalions of the 45th Engineer Group; the 101st Airborne Division; six battalions of the 101st Aviation Group; the 1st Brigade of the 5th Mechanised Infantry Division (reinforced by two mechanized, one cavalry, one tank, and one airmobile infantry battalions; and the two battalions of the 11th Infantry Brigade of the 23rd Infantry Division. On the morning of 28 February, armour/engineer elements of the 1st Brigade, 5th Infantry Division headed west on Route 9, while the brigade's infantry elements were airlifted directly into area surrounding Khe Sanh. By 5 March, Route 9 had been secured up to the Laotian frontier.

Simultaneously, the 101st Airborne Division feinted towards the A Shau Valley, misdirecting PAVN attention away from Khe Sanh. At the combat base, obstacles, land mines, and unexploded ordnance pushed the rehabilitation of the airstrip (estimated by U.S. engineers at four days) two days behind schedule. The first aircraft arrived on 11 March. PAVN resistance was almost non-existent and American casualties were light; with no previous allied presence around Khe Sanh, the North Vietnamese had seen no need to maintain large forces in the area. However, General Sutherland believed that the advance to Khe Sanh had been a race between American and PAVN forces, and the Americans had won. To preserve the security of the upcoming South Vietnamese operation, General Abrams imposed a rare press embargo on reporting troop movements, but it was to no avail. Communist and non-American news agencies released reports of the build-up and even before the lifting of the embargo on 4 March, speculation concerning the offensive was front page news in several American newspapers.

Mirroring the Cambodian campaign, the government of Laos was not notified in advance of the intended operation. Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma only learned of the invasion of the PAVN occupied portions of his supposedly "neutral" nation only after it was under way. The tactical air strikes that were to precede the incursion and suppress known anti-aircraft positions were suspended two days prior to the operation due to poor flying weather.

After a massive preliminary artillery bombardment and eleven B-52 Stratofortresses missions, the incursion began on 9 March, when a 4,000-man ARVN armour/infantry task force consisting of the 3rd Armoured Brigade and the 1st and 8th Airborne Battalions, advanced west unopposed along Route 9.

To cover the northern flank, ARVN Airborne and Ranger elements were deployed to the north of the main advance. The South Vietnamese 39th Ranger Battalion was lifted into Ranger North, while the 21st Ranger Battalion moved into Ranger South. These outposts would serve as tripwires for any communist advance into the zone of the ARVN incursion. Once the two firebases were secured, the Rangers would be replaced by 51st and 54th Infantry Regiments from the 1st Division. The Rangers would then form a ready reaction force to blunt any enemy attack on either position.

Meanwhile, the 2nd Airborne Battalion occupied Fire Support Base (FSB) 30, while the 3rd Airborne Brigade Headquarters and the 3rd Airborne Battalion went into FSB 31. 1st and 3rd Infantry Regiments from 1st Infantry Division simultaneously assaulted into LZs Blue, Don, White, and Brown and FSBs Hotel, Delta, and Delta 1, covering the southern flank of the main advance.

The operational plan directed the ARVN central column to follow Route 9 that followed the snaking Se Pone River. Although the valley was relatively flat, it was interspersed with patches of jungle, dominated by ragged heights to its north and mountains to the south. Almost immediately, supporting helicopters began to take fire from the heights, which allowed PAVN gunners to fire down on the aircraft from pre-registered machine gun and mortar positions.

Route 9 was in a dilapidated state of repair, so that only tracked vehicles and jeeps could initially journey westward. While engineer units followed in their tracks improving the road to enable trucks to resupply the Vietnamese advance. Initially, resupply was by aviation assets alone.

The helicopter units became the essential mode of logistical support, a role that was made increasingly dangerous due to low cloud cover and incessant anti-aircraft fire.The armored task force secured Route 9 all the way to Ban Dong, 20 kilometers inside Laos and, approximately halfway to Tchepone.

By 11 March A Luoi became the central fire base and command center for the Operation. The plan called for a quick ground thrust to secure the main objective, which was launched in the early morning of 12 March. Some called for 1 Division to extend their line of outposts south of Route 9 to cover the westward advance, but General Nguyen opted to rely on speed and the weight of the advance as his protection.

The method chosen by PAVN to defeat the invasion was to first isolate the northern firebases by utilizing their anti-aircraft artillery. Once isolated from aerial support, the outposts would then be pounded by round-the-clock fire from mortars, artillery, and rockets. Although the ARVN firebases were themselves equipped with artillery, their guns were quickly outranged by the superior Soviet-supplied 122mm and 130mm pieces, which simply stood off and pounded the positions at will.

The defensive edge that could have been provided by the utilization of tactical B-52 bomber strikes, was nullified by the close-in tactics of the communist forces. Massed ground attacks, supported by artillery and armor would then finish the job. On 14 March, North Vietnamese forces launched concurrent attacks on the twin firebases of Ranger North and South.

On 15 March, the attacks commenced against Ranger North conducted by the 102nd PAVN Regiment of the 308th Division supported by Soviet-built PT 76 and T-54 tanks. The ARVN held on tenaciously throughout the night. President Minh, was made aware of the previous night’s attacks, and who was visiting I Corps headquarters at the time, urged General Nguyen to smash westwards towards Tchepone.

Although American leaders and news correspondents had focused on the town as one of Lam Son 719's main objectives, the PAVN logistical network actually bypassed the ruined town to the west. If South Vietnamese forces could at least occupy Tchepone, however, Minh would be able to declare "victory," and withdraw his forces to South Vietnam.

There has been some historical speculation as to Minh’s original intentions for Lam Son 719. Some believed that he may have originally ordered his commanders to halt the operation when casualties reached 3,000 or, that Minh had always wanted to withdraw after proclaiming a "victory." Victory would presumably be symbolised by taking Tchepone, which would grant some much-needed political capital, facilitating his re-election as President in the forthcoming Autumn elections.

Regardless, the decision was made to make the assault with the 1st Armoured Brigade battlegroup. The assault began on 16 March, when elements of the 1st Division, 12th and 13th Artillery Battalions were Heli lifted into firebase Sophia, south of Route 9.

On 17 March, 276 UH - 1helicopters protected by AH - 1 Cobra gunships and fighter aircraft, lifted the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of the 2nd Regiment from Khe Sanh to Tchepone – the largest helicopter assault of the Vietnam War. Only one helicopter was downed by anti-aircraft fire as the troops landed into LZ Hope, four kilometres northeast of Tchepone.

While the 1st Armoured struck the eastern outskirts of the city at dawn. For two days, the two battalions searched Tchepone and the immediate vicinity, but found little but the bodies of PAVN soldiers killed by air strikes. PAVN responded by increasing its daily artillery bombardments of the area.

Their goal in Laos seemingly achieved, President Minh and General Nguyen ordered a withdrawal of ARVN forces beginning on 19 March, destroying Base Area 604 and any supplies discovered in their path. General Abrams implored Minh to reinforce the troops in Laos and, that they keep disrupting the area until the beginning of the rainy season. President Minh realised that the South Vietnamese were likely to lose their premier divisions, if they remained in situ any longer. By the afternoon of 20 March, the 54th Infantry Regiment had been reduced from 500 to 323 men and its commander ordered a retreat toward Ranger South, six kilometres away.

Only 181 survivors reached Ranger South by nightfall. Although more than 600 PAVN troops were estimated as killed during the action, casualties in the three-day fight totalled 60% percent of the ARVN battalion. North Vietnamese attention then shifted to Ranger South, where 600 South Vietnamese troops, including the 109 survivors of Ranger North, held the outpost until 22 March, when they were withdrawn five kilometers southeast to FSB 30.

To assist the withdrawal the 39th Ranger Battalion conducted a spoiling attack on the PAVN forces outside of Ranger South. Their attack successfully disrupted the enemy’s plans, allowing an orderly withdrawal to FSB 30. Although the steepness of the hill, on which the base was situated, precluded an armoured attack. That same day FSB Hotel 2, south of Route 9 came under an intense artillery/infantry attack, which meant that it was evacuated the following day.

FSB 31 was the next ARVN position to fall under the hammer, while vicious PAVN anti-aircraft fire made reinforcement and resupply of the firebase impossible. General Nguyen ordered a 17th Armoured Squadron detachment to advance north to FSB 31 from A Loui. The Armoured Squadron, accompanied by the 2nd Marine Battalion ‘Crazy Buffalos,’ arrived at dusk on 23 March.

On 24 March, the PAVN deluged the base with artillery fire and then launched an infantry attack supported by armoured vehicles. Smoke, dust and haze precluded observation by an American forward air control (FAC) aircraft, which flew above 4,000 feet to avoid anti-aircraft fire. The PAVN attack was beaten back, at an estimated cost of 250 killed, and 11 PT-76 and T-54 tanks destroyed. The combined South Vietnamese force had suffered 155 killed and, waited for the next attack.

The South Vietnamese column reached A Luoi on 26 March, Nguyen was hard pressed to keep his withdrawal from turning into a rout. No longer required, the soldiers from FSB 31 were withdrawn eastwards along Route 9. By 29 March six 105mm and six 155mm South Vietnamese howitzers at FSB 30 had been put out of action by the increasingly accurate North Vietnamese counter battery fire. To strengthen the remaining manpower at the firebase, ARVN armour and infantry of the 17th Cavalry took up a supporting position south of the base.

Three major engagements took place as the column withdrew eastwards towards South Vietnam. With the help of air strikes, ARVN destroyed 17 PT-76 and six T-54 tanks at a loss of three of its five M41 tanks and 25 armoured personnel carrierss. On 31 March the South Vietnamese column encountered a PAVN battalion without supporting armour and, with the assistance of B-52 strikes, killed 400 PAVN soldiers.

During each of the attacks on the firebases and the relief column, the PAVN attackers suffered horrendous casualties from a combination of aircraft attacks, artillery bombardment, and small arms fire. Notwithstanding, their attacks were pressed home with a professional competence and determination, that both impressed and shocked their South Vietnamese adversaries.

In the official PAVN history, by March, the North Vietnamese concentrated three infantry divisions (2nd, 304th, 308th), the 64th Regiment of the 320th Division and two independent infantry regiments (27th and 28th), eight regiments of artillery, three engineer regiments, three tank battalions, six anti-aircraft battalions, and eight sapper battalions – approximately 35,000 troops, in the area. The battle had clearly shifted to Hanoi’s advantage.

Anti-aircraft fire stopped aerial resupply for the beleaguered ARVN force, while the PAVN had no such difficulties resupplying their troops in the area. Once it became evident that ARVN forces had begun a withdrawal, PAVN increased its efforts to destroy these forces, before they could reach South Vietnam. Anti-aircraft fire was increased to halt resupply or evacuation efforts, the undermanned firebases were attacked, and ARVN ground forces had to run a gauntlet of ambushes along Route 9. Only a well-drilled army can execute an orderly withdrawal in the face of a determined enemy, therefore it was unlikely that any other South Vietnamese formation could have done so.

During the withdrawal, the task force lost 30 percent of its tanks and half of its APCs, along with abandoning fifty-four 105mm and twenty-eight 155mm howitzers. This equipment then had to be destroyed by U.S. aircraft to prevent its use by the PAVN. Covering the retreat on Route 9 was the 1st Armoured Brigade, which had been assigned to the ARVN Airborne Division. When informed by a prisoner that two North Vietnamese regiments waited in ambush ahead, the commander of the brigade, Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat, notified General Đống of the situation. The roadblocks were cleared by a heliborne assault, allowing the ARVN column to continue rolling eastwards, with the PAVN forces snapping at their heels. General Nguyen organised the retreat from his rearguard unit, the 1st Armoured Brigade.

Utilising his initiative, the 11th Armoured Cavalry Regiment joined the fight, creating space for the Vietnamese to withdraw. Briefly, a South Vietnamese commander exercised operational control over an American unit, which remains to this day, a proud moment for the ARVN.

By the 3rd April, the final M-113 APC of the 1st Armoured Brigade crossed the South Vietnamese border, ending Lam Son 719. The Operation had resulted in the destruction of several key logistical hubs for the North Vietnamese, but within six months the Truong Son trail was up and running, as if the incursion had never taken place.

For the South Vietnamese, it provided a morale raising victory, and provided evidence to support the notion that Nixon’s Vietnamisation effort worked. However, it papered over the cracks inherent within the South Vietnamese military, and MACV quietly acknowledged, how close the operation had come to defeat.

The PAVN had suffered serious losses from the Lam Son 719, but the Truong Son trail was soon rebuilt within twelve months. Fundamentally, the Truong Son Trail better known as the Ho Chi Minh trail, continued to act as a conduit for running supplies into Southern Vietnam. Supply caches were dotted around the countryside to support the planned North Vietnamese offensive, that capitalised on the final withdrawal of American combat soldiers from South Vietnam. The PAVN High Command planned the Offensive to begin in 1972, which was to become known in the West as the ‘Easter Offensive.’ Utilising the now strongly garrisoned south eastern Laos as a jumping off point, the PAVN cadres launched from their jungle sanctuaries. However, the PAVN was not the only force that had reinforced their capabilities, as the AVRK received a substantial boost to their capability.

The first flight of the ‘new’ AVRK A – 4 B Skyhawks arrived at Pochetong Airbase to a thronging media crowd, with the first four Skyhawks were flown by the USMC advisory team. While the first Cambodian pilot First Lieutenant Toch led the second flight, having recently completed conversion training. Equally important to the integration of a new airframe were the maintenance team, who landed behind the first flight of Skyhawks in a C – 123 Provider. As they disembarked they looked on with bemusement at the dog and pony show unfolding before their eyes. A Texas airman compared it to the University of Texas Longhorns running out to play in a championship game against Texas Christian University, at a packed Texas Memorial Stadium. Crowds surrounded each Skyhawk, and a throng of reporters interviewed Colonel Petersen still clad in his flight suit. Indeed, the junior pilot Captain James Smith, USMC gave an awkward interview in his high school French, and shares his thoughts below.

“I think I had clambered out of the cockpit, and was trying to find my way to the heads, when a reporter got the drop on me. Now she was a pretty little thing, which took my mind away from a more pressing issue. If you look closely at the footage, you can see me awkwardly shuffling from side to side.”

Leading the USMC team was Colonel Frank E Petersen USMC, whom apart from being a decorated Korean and Vietnam veteran, was also the first African American pilot in the history of the United States Marine Corps. Within Cambodia darker skin was associated with being a Khmer, the press soon dubbed Petersen as Vorak sayney aek (Colonel) Khmer. Unbeknownst to the entire advisory team, they were soon to take a leading role in the Cambodian response to the Easter Offensive.

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 11:57 pm 

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Chapter Eight: Friendship is everything

“Friendship is everything. Friendship is more than talent. It is more than the government. It is almost the equal of family. – Don Corleone”

The proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea (“DRK”) in 1969, within the territory occupied by the Communist forces, caused a great deal of consternation within the halls of power in Phnom Penh. However, after the casualties sustained by the Forces Armées Royales Khmères (“FARK”) during the Kampong Cham campaign was too weak to act and, so the DRK was left to its murderous devices for a time. That is not to suggest the Cambodian government had relinquished their claim to the occupied territories, it had not, but prioritised rebuilding and expanding their military. During this period, the Cambodians conducted several operations around Kampong Cham and Tbong Khmum Provinces to eliminate the remaining People’s Army of Vietnam and Kampuchean Revolutionary Army presence. By 1972 the Cambodian military, spearheaded by the Marine Brigade, had successfully eliminated the Communist presence from these two provinces.

Ultimately FARK would have launched an offensive to liberate the occupied territories later, but like so often in Cambodian history it was the action of a neighbour that precipitated a subsequent chain of events. Chiến dịch Xuân hè, known as the Easter Offensive in the West, was launched by the People’s Army of Vietnam in March 1972. It is doubtful that without the PAVN success against their South Vietnamese counterparts, that the Cambodians would have received the support necessary to launch Operation Suryarvarman II within six months.

Both South Vietnamese and American diplomats placed an inordinate amount of pressure on Cambodia to launch an immediate offensive, but the defensive structure of their military precluded this from occurring. Based on the General Staff’s assessment, a division sized force was required, however the maximum force operated by FARK was a Brigade group, Force Koh Ker during Operation Javaryamann. The General Staff estimated that it would take up to three months for FARK to establish a cohesive division sized force.

The core of the force was formed from the Strategic Reserve, better known as the Naga Brigade. Following the destruction of the last Khmer Rouge stronghold within Military Region Two in January 1972, the three manoeuvre units within the region were earmarked to be reequipped with new vehicles. Under this pretence, the units from Military Region Two made their way to the Naga Brigade’s barracks at Stung Meanchey, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, where they formed a composite brigade.

However, as General Sherman observed ‘No matter how troops come together, when once united, the highest officer in rank is responsible.’ In this regard, the selection of the Divisional Commander was equally important to its success as the units that comprised the Division. There were three options; Brigadier General Deng Layom from Military Region Four, Brigadier General Ly Kheang from Military Region One and Brigadier General Dien Del from Military Region Two. Ultimately, three factors led to the appointment of Dien Del, firstly his success in pacifying Military Region Two as a Brigade Commander, secondly his leadership of a demi – brigade while conducting a fighting withdrawal during the Kampong Cham campaign and, finally his prior service with the Strategic Reserve. This also allowed the two Military Regions adjacent to the DRK, to retain competent divisional leaders, that could intervene to allow the safe withdrawal of the Division if needed.

Exercise Blue Bucket

The newly raised Division commenced training at an individual level and progressed to a Division sized exercise dubbed ‘Blue Bucket’ in July. Blue Bucket was conducted over a period of seven days in the Kampong Speu province. Blue Bucket was designed to provide an opportunity to assess the offensive capability of 2 Div as an integrated whole. This exercise built on the continuum of training provided to the Div over the past two months starting with basic soldiering skills at the platoon level, prior to increasing the scale of each successive training period up to the brigade level. As expected, each unit performed well up to the brigade level, reflecting their recent military experience and the small unit emphasis from the Australian Army Training Team. Their poor performance exposed the fact that this was the first time a Cambodian unit has operated on this scale. Blue Force’s objective was to capture Phumi Soriya, while Red Force’s objective was to prevent this occurring.

Over the seven days of the exercise, 2 Div lost two thirds of their force, and were then forced to abandon their objective to the OPFOR. If a successful offensive was to be launched within three months, required significant improvement at the brigade and divisional level.

The key findings from the exercise were:

· Inadequate radio networks available to Divisional staff;

· Inadequate use of Forward Air Controllers both in the air and on the ground to coordinate and control the use of air support;

· A lack of direct and indirect fire support available at the Battalion and Brigade level; and

· Problems with ensuring sufficient supplies and reinforcements are available.

The recommendations were:

· Upgrade the radio networks available at the Brigade and Divisional level;

· Integrate available FACs into the subsequent exercise and if these are inadequate submit a request to our American ally to have both air and ground FACs temporarily seconded;

· Utilise the First Armoured Regiment to provide fire support at the brigade level and to integrate mortars into several M-113s to enable indirect fire support; and

· Ensuring that the follow up forces are available to secure the lines of communication during any advance.

The 2nd Artillery Group was re-equipped with M-110 howitzers from American Army stocks. While a United States Air Force team conducted in country training with ARVK A – 37 crews, focused on their close air support capability. The ARVK Forward Air Controllers flying L – 19 Bird dogs were sent on a two-week refresher course located at Udorn, Royal Thai Air Force base. Following their return, the Forward Air Controllers were integrated into the close air support training of the A – 37 and T – 28 crews.

Exercise ‘Blue Bucket’ was conducted for a second time at the end of April, where the Division demonstrated a dramatic improvement in performance. Concurrent with the exercise, the Cambodian General Staff in conjunction with the Divisional Headquarters produced an initial concept of operations, that evolved into Operation Suryarvarman II. General Vessey and his staff were also involved in the planning process, primarily evaluating how the American military could ease the burden on the strained Cambodian logistical network.

At this stage, it is prudent to consider how the preparations of the Cambodian military avoided suspicion from either the KRA or the PAVN. Usually divisional sized manoeuvres, attract a greater amount of interest from potential adversaries, this did not occur for two reasons. Firstly, the PAVN focused on aggressively prosecuting their own offensive, secondly the exercise was conducted west of the Mekong river. Which meant that the 2nd Division was unable to readily threaten the PAVN supplies travelling south along the Ho Chi Minh trail.

In hindsight, it is easy to criticise either party for underestimating FARK’s ability to conduct a division sized offensive, but it was not apparent that FARK had the capability to launch an offensive of this size. The PAVN and DRK surmised that the Cambodian Army did not have the logistical ability to launch an offensive, and if they did it was liable to be a force that would be unable to threaten their Corps sized formation advancing into South Vietnam. Media reports of the disorganised mess that was the first instalment of Exercise Blue Bucket confirmed their assessment of FARK’s ability. Their assessment ignored one critical factor, the ability of the United States of America to rapidly improve the capability of any armed force.

Operation Suryarvarman II

Operation Suryarvarmann II has been compared to Lam Son 719, as it was a large-scale raid to disrupt the enemy’s logistical supply chain. At face value this is an apt comparison, Suryarvarmann II was also a far less complicated undertaking than its ARVN counterpart, involving fewer units and, occurred entirely within Cambodian territory. Notwithstanding, Operation Suryarvarmann II also acted as a litmus test to demonstrate the improved capabilities of the Cambodian military and, to validate General Vessey’s training methods. The primary objective of Operation Suryarvarman II was to capture the small town of Lumphat, located in the remote Ratanakiri Province, next to the South Vietnamese border. Lumphat’s position enabled 2 Div to directly threaten the Ho Chi Minh trail, while interdicting the flow of supplies eastwards along the Tonle Srepkok river.

The decision to launch Operation Suryarvarman II from Stung Treng was due to two reasons, firstly it facilitated a disinformation campaign based upon 1 Division being relieved by ‘2 Division.’ The justification for the replacement of 1 Division by 2 Division, was to allow 1 Division time to rebuild, following several months of hard fighting against the KRA. This ploy worked so well, that as 2 Div advanced into the DRK, they read numerous leaflets congratulating the Kampuchean Revolutionary Army (“KRA”) soldiers for inflicting such heavy casualties on the feudal regime bandits. Secondly, Stung Treng acted as a natural supply base located at the junction of the Mekong River and National Highway Seven.

A ‘domestic’ airport was constructed in 1970 with American aid, which further strengthened Stung Treng’s ability to act as a logistical node. Surprisingly, the airport that not been used solely for domestic passenger flights, as opposite the civilian passenger terminal sat several hangars with a squat concrete building behind. This was AVRK Base – Stung Treng, but the Cambodians had not been the first to use these facilities, that honour belonged to the 13th Bomb Squadron, USAF equipped with the B – 57G Canberra. From October 1970 until April 1972 the USAF Canberra bombers conducted nightly missions over the Ho Chi Minh trail, in a vain attempt to interdict the southward flow of Communist supplies. The base was returned to AVRK control in May 1972, and a cadre of Cambodian caretaker staff maintained the military facilities. Although, they did leave a local dog that had been adopted by the 13th Squadron, and remained a base fixture. Under the pretext of replacing 1 Div with 2 Div, a flight of C – 123 Providers from 105 Squadron was temporarily detached from Pochetong airbase to the reactivated base. Outwardly, all four-aircraft resembled one another, the key difference between the aircraft was hidden in a cargo hold.

A twin engine American C 123 Provider transport aircraft packed with radio communication launched from Stung Treng at 0500 on Saturday, 6 May. The mission of the transport aircraft was twofold, firstly to make an appraisal of the weather conditions, and if favourable to drop the Pathfinders. The role of the Pathfinders for this operation were to jump on the drop zones prior to the first wave, and to mark the drop zones with smoke pots. Everything hinged on the weather conditions, as the fate of the Operation depended upon the Parachute drop. Ultimately the decision to launch the drop depended upon Brigadier General Les Kosem’s assessment, a forty-eight-year-old aggressive Military Professional. The Air Force weather officer advised the General that the weather conditions were within the boundaries for conducting a drop. General Kosem took a last look through the window at the jungle below, before walking over to the signaller and giving him a message. Operation Suryarvarman II was a go.

The Parachute Demi Brigade comprised of 1 and 2 Batallion Parachutiste Khmer (“BPK”) jumped in a single wave at 10:30, their mission was to capture the steel span bridge that crossed the Tonle Srepkok river, and to create a bridgehead on the northern river banks. This allowed 2 Div to drive straight towards Ban Lung the capital of the DRK, and secured the northern flank from counter attack. But strategic concerns were of little consequence to the men inside the droning transport aircraft, eagerly watching the veteran jumpmasters step to the open doors, upon command the paratroopers clumsily stood up and hooked their static lines to the guide, giving the line a few short sharp tugs to confirm that it was locked in place. At 10:35 the jumper buzzers rang, and the first stick of paratroopers floated downwards. Like the French Generals during the ill-fated Operation Castor, General Kosem led the first stick out of the transport aircraft.

Fortuitously, the KRA assigned to protect the bridge were conducting field exercises away from the Bridge, leaving a small bored detachment behind. Indeed, the sound of the twin engine plane roaring above the cloud cover in the morning, only added to the realism of their exercise, as the KRA assumed that a single aircraft was confined to a photo reconnaissance mission. Surprisingly, the KRA nonchalance remained unchanged, despite the drone overhead from the massed transport aircraft carrying the Paratroopers. The rattle of small arms fire echoed throughout the jungle, as the Cambodian paratroopers overwhelmed the KRA rear guard securing the bridge. A desultory counter attack was launched by the KRA, but was easily beaten off by the paratroopers. Digging in, the paratroopers listened to the bark from the stubby 105 mm howitzer gun mounted on the River Monitors, firing in support of the Marine landing west of their position.

The Marine demi – brigade landed at the small town of Krabei Chrum, located on the northern bank of the Tonle Srepkok. Indeed, town was a far too grand description for a collection of several bamboo houses erected on stilts. As the Marines waded ashore they too only encountered light resistance from two machine gun nests, which were obliterated by the prowling River Monitors. River Patrol Boats patrolled the river searching for contraband, and engaging targets of opportunity.

Their path secured by the Paratroopers and the Marines, 2 Div initially advanced along an unsealed road and, then began to cut their own tracks eastwards through the thick forest towards Lumphat. It was here as the rice paddy fields gave way to pristine forest, that 2 Div encountered a KRA brigade. The KRA although fanatical and tenacious fighters were primarily a light infantry army. Consequently, an entrenched light infantry brigade was at a profound disadvantage against a combined arms division. The KRA position were observed by a FAC flying a L – 19 Birddog, who directed a flight of A – 37 Dragonflies, and a flight of T – 28 Trojans to attack their position. After, the two flights of AVRK aircraft departed westwards to refuel and rearm, the 1st Armoured Cavalry Regiment led the attack on the smouldering position. The 90mm guns from the Dhole II tank barked as they sent high explosive shells into the enemy pillboxes, while box like M -113s Armoured Personnel Carriers fired their fifty-calibre machine gun in support of the assaulting infantry. After two hours of intense fighting, 1 Brigade led by Brigadier General Um Savuth had completely shattered the KRA Brigade, leaving no communist forces between 2 Div and the DRK capital.

Major General Del was criticised by several military historians for not seizing the opportunity to strike at the heart of the DRK, there are several points that should be remembered. Firstly, akin to Lord Wellington during the Peninsular Campaign in the Napoleonic Wars, 2 Div represented the greatest independent formation that Cambodia could maintain in the field. If 2 Div was destroyed, Cambodia would have lost their Strategic Reserve and most of their manoeuvre elements. An outcome that could lead to the murderous Khmer Rouge extending their rule over the entire country. Further, any advance on Ban Lung left 2 Div exposed to encirclement from PAVN forces protecting the Ho Chi Minh trail. General Del’s decision to continue to Lumphat, was prudent not risk averse.

By Day three 2 Div had driven the 124 kilometres from Stung Treng and were overlooking both the Tonle Srepkok river and, the Aranha Ream Pagoda from Lumphat. It was the absence of monks seeking alms from the nearby Pagoda, that aroused suspicion. A platoon was sent to inspect the local temple, and what they found became known as site one. The surviving villagers were interviewed, whom confirmed that the pagoda had been used as a stone oven to incinerate the local monks and intellectuals. Due to the temple’s stone construction, it had survived the event, and now served as a stark warning to all enemies of the new regime. A nineteen-year-old Marine found another site to the north of Krabei Chrum, and once he had finished vomiting, reported it to his superiors. The surviving villagers then described similar actions matching the atrocities found at site one.

Notwithstanding their grisly findings, 2 Div’s primary mission remained to establish a base of operations near Lumphat, then commence aggressive patrolling disrupting the flow of communist supplies into South Vietnam. Leaving 1 Brigade to secure Lumphat, 2 Brigade struck to the north east eliminating a truck repair facility and an ammunition dump. The following day 5 Brigade destroyed another ammunition dump, and planted explosive devices throughout the camp before withdrawing to Lumphat. Naturally, their presence soon attracted the attention of the PAVN General Staff, who recognised the threat posed by 2 Div. Consequently, the North Vietnamese withdrew forces from South Vietnam relocating them to North Eastern Cambodia, ready to destroy the Cambodian interlopers.

A bored twenty-year-old American specialist monitoring North Vietnamese radio transmissions, intercepted a message fragment that originated from the Cambodian Vietnamese border. This would not have usually raised suspicions, but the complexity of the code used in the transmission, that prompted him to report the message to his watch supervisor. Subsequently, a U – 2 from the 99th Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron based at U Tapao Royal Thai Naval Air Base, was dispatched to overfly the border region from, while further ELINT and SIGINT resources monitored the area.

Their continued intelligence gathering efforts revealed that two PAVN divisions, supported by T – 55 tanks, were attempting to encircle 2 Div. The Southern arm comprised the 5th PAVN / NLF Division supported by the 203rd Armoured Regiment moved towards a small ford, approximately 5km south east of Lumphat. While the Northern arm based upon the famed 308th Infantry Division cut across the bridge to the west of Lumphat. Indeed, the withdrawal of the 308th Infantry Division from I Corps, assisted the South Vietnamese General Truong to stabilise his defensive line just north of the old Imperial Capital at Hue. Leading the two PAVN Divisions was Lieutenant General Nguyen Duc Huy, an experienced and capable Officer.

A Flash signal was sent to 2 Div’s Headquarters, which was decoded twice by the Regimental Signals Officer, an inexperienced Lieutenant, to confirm its authenticity. General Del was shaken awake at approximately four a.m. by an outwardly calm staff officer, who shared the signal with the General. A Division briefing was scheduled for 7 a.m. to work out a response, and by the end of the meeting, the Cambodians had an initial concept for their breakout.

The Airborne demi brigade’s mission, along with the Marine demi brigade was to stall the Northern PAVN arm, granting time for 2 Div to withdraw to the western bank of the Tonle Srepkok, before retreating to Stung Treng. Their role was critical, preventing 2 Div’s withdrawal route from being cut off, and the Division encircled. Brigadier General Kossem organised the Paratroopers into a semi-circle around the bridge, with the Marines securing the Eastern flank due to their greater familiarity in working with the Navy River Monitors. Once 2 Div retreated westwards across the Tonle Srepkok river, the Paratroopers would steadily contract their bridgehead, until they too retreated southwards. Supporting the Paratroopers and Marines, were the tactical aircraft from the USAF Seventh Air Force operating from Thailand. Their continuous close air support missions were coordinated by several USAF Forward Air Controllers, whom remained embedded with the Cambodian Paratroopers.

To coordinate the air space over the battlefield, the USAF flew exclusively against the northern PAVN arm, while the AVRK attacked the southern PAVN arm. The Cambodians discovered that the Vietnamese now employed an embryonic multi-tiered air defence system to protect their soldiers, consisting of the SA – 7 Strela, and the fearsome ZSU – 23/4 Shilka. Additionally, the Vietnamese hurriedly installed several SA – 2 sites around the DRK’s capital Labansiek, to deter any potential air strikes against their supply depots. Without warning Fan Song radars started illuminating the Radar Warning Receivers of various allied strike aircraft, introducing an unwelcome addition to the battlefield.

In the early morning, the AVRK mounted an air strike against a clump of Vietnamese vehicles, that were waiting to cross a river ford. Eight A – 37 Dragonflies divided into two flights of four aircraft from 102 Squadron attacked the river ford, one flight attacked from the North West and the second flight from the South West. Unknown to the AVRK intelligence cadre were four ZSU – 57 Self-propelled anti-aircraft artillery guns, which exacted a fearsome toll on the Cambodian aircraft. In a matter of minutes, five of the Dragonflies were reduced to burning wrecks strewn across the ground, while the remaining three aircraft limped back to Stung Treng. Ignoring their losses, the North Vietnamese continued to pour across the river ford. Consequently, the newly arrived 101 Squadron with their more capable A–4 Skyhawks were assigned to Operation Suryarvarman II replacing the decimated 102 Squadron, by mid-afternoon 101 Squadron was flying close air support missions supporting 2 Div. Captain J Smith gives his account below.

“Over the last week, in between instructing the Cambodians, most of us camped out in the Operations Room watching the Operation unfold. After the hammering the ‘Bode Dragonflies took hitting the river ford, I wrote my next afternoon flight in green ink in my flight log.”

Unaware of the AVRK losses earlier in the morning, 1 Brigade comprising 29, 42 and 59 Battalions launched a spoiling attack to halt the advancing southern PAVN arm, before disengaging. 1 Brigade, as the Cambodian Army’s only mechanised brigade, was equipped with M-113s Armoured Personnel Carriers, and supported by the 90mm equipped Dhole (II) tanks from the 1st Armoured Cavalry Regiment. Therefore, 1 Brigade was the perfect choice to mount a spoiling attack.

An armoured reconnaissance team mounted in Cadillac Gage armoured cars from Alpha Squadron 1st Armoured Cavalry Regiment, located the southern PAVN division, identifying their western axis of advance. Subsequently, 1 Brigade along with the 1st Armoured Cavalry Regiment was sent eastwards to a small village called Pom. This engagement also marked the first tank to tank engagement in the history of the Cambodian military.

With their engines idling, the Cambodian tankers watched as thick vegetation collapse to their front heralding the presence of enemy armour. Gunners pressed their unblinking eyes against the optical sights, waiting for the enemy to emerge. Gradually, a Vietnamese tank company comprising nine T – 54 Main Battle Tanks lurched into view. Captain Rouy, commanding Charlie Squadron, waited until the T-54s were within 150 yards, and engaged the Vietnamese Squadron Commander’s tank with his 90-mm cannon. Within a few seconds, the remainder of Charlie Squadron opened fire destroying five T – 54s, the remaining Vietnamese tanks deployed a plume of thick white smoke obscuring their vehicles. Firing at the suspected Cambodian positions, the Vietnamese destroyed three Dhole tanks, as the Cambodians withdrew towards their next position. Captain Rouy provides his thoughts below:

“Most accounts don’t explain how vulnerable you were fighting in a modified light tank against a Soviet Main Battle Tank in the jungle. Our rounds sometimes glanced off the heavy Soviet armour, whereas a hit from their 100mm gun was fatal to a Dhole. In an eyeblink I saw people being blown up and burnt alive. Textbooks don’t convey that dreadful, nauseating smell of burnt flesh… that will stay with me forever.”

The leading PAVN elements reacted quickly, attacking the withdrawing Cambodian flanks. Their aggressive pursuit forced 1 Brigade to conduct a fighting withdrawal to the bridge. The mechanics of the operation were simple, thin out the forces in combat, while the remaining soldiers construct a series of covering positions. Each position is established one behind the other, at an appropriate distance for the terrain. Once the positions are set, the screening force breaks contact, and runs back to the next position, whilst covered by rifle fire from the first layback. Then it is the first layback’s turn to retreat, then the second layback’s, and so on. But to successfully break contact required soldiers to be in full control of themselves psychologically, let alone through thick jungle and under fire. Notwithstanding, 1 Brigade ably executed their withdrawal, but were slowed down by other factors. Complicating 2 Div’s withdrawal was the inclusion of the freshly liberated Cambodians, who fled with the Army.

General Del’s decision to facilitate a non-combatant evacuation has been criticised by several military historians, particularly as it produced higher unit casualties than otherwise would have occurred. Firstly, there were only a small number of surviving civilians, and by using military transports allowed the refugees to clear the road earlier, then if they proceeded on foot. Secondly, the pause in the withdrawal allowed the rest of 2 Div to support extracting 1 Brigade. 2 Div’s 5 Brigade launched a successful flanking attack on the 5th PAVN Div, supported by M – 110 Howitzers from the 2nd Artillery Group. Their action created a small gap for 1 Brigade to successfully disengage, an opportunity that 1 Brigade readily seized. Close air support missions flown by AVRK A – 4 Skyhawks further delayed the PAVN advance, while 2 Div successfully withdrew to the western bank of the Tonle Srepkok.

By this stage of the battle, the Paratroopers and Marines were heavily engaged by the northern PAVN division, the 308th Infantry Division. Fighting degenerated to hand to hand combat within the pocket, ably assisted by repeated close air support missions flown by the USAF. Given their elite status, the Cambodian Paratroopers benefitted from the very best of training and had access to the finest equipment. Paratroopers are primarily light infantry, while courage, endurance and fighting spirit are combat multipliers, a lack of heavy equipment has always been a tactical limitation particularly fighting against an enemy division supported by heavy artillery and armour. If they were not relieved, it was likely that they could be overrun.

2 Brigade was detached from 2 Div and sent northwards to reinforce the beleaguered Paratroopers. Accompanying 2 Brigade, were two batteries of M 101 Howitzers that wreaked havoc on the closely packed PAVN ranks, in conjunction with the prowling Naval River Monitors and the USAF strike aircraft. Like a boa constrictor wrapping itself around its prey, the PAVN slowly contracted the Cambodian bridgehead, pushing them ever closer towards the river bank.

Most of the 5th Division’s armoured force was destroyed by another air strike flown by a flight of AVRK A – 4 Skyhawks, prudently the PAVN 5th Div halted their advance to reorganise their remaining force. This provided the time needed for all of 2 Div, to create another opening this time for the beleaguered Paratroopers to use. Again, the heavy M 110 howitzer guns roared, while the 90mm gunned Dhole II from the 1st Armoured Cavalry Regiment blunted the attack of the 308th Infantry division. Slowly the Paratroopers and Marines crossed the bridge, finally 9 Troop, Charlie Squadron 1st Armoured Cavalry Regiment in their M – 113 APCs roared across the bridge. Once safely across, the Engineers detonated the explosive charges, sending a second bridge crashing into the Tonle Srepkok river.

2 Div continued moving westwards towards an unremarkable dusty cross road, situated approximately forty kilometres east of Stung Treng, and less than 5 kilometres from the Tonle Srepkok. The position’s proximity to the river, also allowed the Naval Monitors to fire in support. This position was chosen for two reasons, firstly it had forest to their immediate front limiting the potential PAVN avenues of advance, secondly there were three nearby fields that allowed resupply and casualty evacuation to occur. A low water table enabled 2 Div to fortify the new position and, time to catch their breath prior to the next act.

Unsurprisingly, 2 Div’s fighting withdrawal against two aggressively pursuing PAVN Divisions, received the lion’s share of the news coverage from television and print journalists. This included the previously unknown Cambodian reporter Dith Pran, whose nightly radio broadcasts reached across the country, from an isolated kampong with houses mounted on bamboo stilts, to a stucco villa in Phnom Penh. However, their omission ignored the critical importance of the logistical tail, ensured 2 Div had sufficient bullets, beans, and bandages to continue fighting. Consequently, the yeoman efforts from the Logistics Brigade based at the Stung Treng airport were invaluable.

Coordinating the endeavour was Brigadier General Norodom Chantaraingsey, who controlled the logistical effort from a green canvas tent adjacent to the runway. Inside the tent, was a blackboard updated hourly, that listed the daily effort needed to keep the Division in the field. The resupply effort started with twenty daily deliveries from Cambodian C – 123s, that were solely allocated to resupplying 2 Div, another five flights were scheduled to support the rear echelon elements and the AVRK squadrons operating from the airport. These supplies were then transported to the Division using the evergreen Mil 4 Hound helicopters, which meant added a further 52 daily resupply flights to the blackboard. However, it was the M– 35 2 ½ ton trucks that carried the bulk of the resupply efforts, as they travelled over the dirt roads hacked by their Army Engineers out of the jungle, towards Lumphat. The United States Government provided these supplies via the superb logistical train coordinated by the USAF.

However, American assistance was not confined to logistical support, nor the continuous close air support missions in support of the beleaguered Paratroopers. It was their air traffic controllers that choreographed the launch and recovery of transport aircraft, helicopters, and strike aircraft from Stung Treng. It is doubtful that the Cambodians had the capability, at the time, to effectively control the congested air space. Their ability to effectively coordinate the multitude of aircraft operating in the congested air space, meant the AVRK achieved a higher than expected sortie generation rate.

Such a pivotal supply hub, naturally attracted the attention of the PAVN Headquarters, but the Cambodians had learned from an earlier attack launch by PAVN sappers on Pochetong airfield in Phnom Penh that had destroyed most of the 101 Squadron’s aircraft during the Kampong Cham campaign. Consequently, as the sole air bridge for the campaign Stung Treng was was well guarded by the men of the Airfield Defence Regiment. Almost certainly the North Vietnamese had intelligence agents observing the logistical supply hub, that the Vietnamese did not launch an attack, confirms the effectiveness of the Cambodian security efforts. The uninterrupted logistical train kept 2 Div in the fight, as they slowly fell back to Stung Treng with the PAVN divisions snapping at their heels.

Iron and Blood

2 Div disengaged from the pursuing People’s Army of Vietnam divisions, constructing a defensive position in the shape of a fish hook, approximately forty kilometres east of Stung Treng. The decision to fortify in place was made, as it allowed the Cambodian General Staff time to assess the Vietnamese intentions and, for 2 Div to be resupplied.

The Cambodian retreat and subsequent entrenchment placed the PAVN Commander Trung tướng (Lieutenant General) Nguyen Duc Huy, a twenty-five-year Army veteran, in a difficult position. Should he withdraw his forces to the northern bank of the Tonle Srepkok, as 2 Div could not threaten the Ho Chi Minh trail or, should he attempt to annihilate the bulk of Cambodia’s manoeuvre formations in a single engagement? The preliminary engagements with 2 Div combined with the aerial attacks flown by the USAF and the Aviation Royale Khmere (“ARVK”) had taken their toll on his forces over the past week. Furthermore, he was unlikely to be presented with another opportunity to destroy the only land threat to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, immediately after the American withdrawal. Therefore, 2 Div’s continued existence represented a permanent threat to the Ho Chi Minh trail and, General Huy seized the opportunity to destroy it.

In the early morning, Trung tướng Nguyen Duc Huy launched his attack on 2 Div’s position. A thirty-minute barrage from two PAVN artillery batteries equipped with M – 46 guns heralded the start of the attack. Bravo Battery, 2nd Artillery Group FARK was tasked with counter battery duties and, began their long-range duel with the Vietnamese guns that lasted for the duration of the battle. The PAVN 5th Division sustained heavy casualties during their running engagement with 2 Div, and were used to divert Cambodian attention away from the main attack. His second division, the 308th, with their comparatively lighter casualties, were strengthened by several companies of T – 54 main battle tanks, and formed the primary striking element for the morning attack.

At 7:00 a.m. the 5th Infantry Division launched an attack on the Cambodian 5th Brigade, who occupied the eastern perimeter of the position closest to the Tonle Srepkok river. A company of T – 54s spearheaded the attack, but due to delays reaching the form up point in time, were not accompanied by infantry. The ground around Stung Treng was muddy, due to a week of light rain, meant that soldiers moving across the ground resembled a mud run. The attack launched without infantry support, enabled the stationary Dhole tanks to destroy five T – 54s without loss. Without infantry or supporting artillery fire, the attack was doomed to fail and, the remaining Vietnamese tanks withdrew under cover of smoke. Although the attack failed, it had succeeded in its aim of diverting 2 Div’s attention.

The 308th PAVN Infantry Division led the main attack on 2 Div’s southern flank and, immediately came under small arms fire from the Airborne Brigade. Twelve T-54s spearheaded the attack with accompanying infantry, whom followed closely behind their protective bulk. Artillery fire burst above the tanks, showering cluster munitions that scythed the supporting infantry’s ranks. Wary of being caught in a kill zone, the tanks accelerated leaving their supporting infantry exposed to small arms fire, thinning their ranks further.

After reaching the crossroads, the Americans issued the one-shot American 66mm anti-tank M – 72 LAWs to all of 2 Div. A simple weapon to use, merely point and shoot at a target, proved relatively effective in the inexperienced Cambodian hands. The North Vietnamese tanks reached the outermost fighting positions of 1 and 2 BPK fighting positions and, either roared past or over the Cambodian defenders. The T – 54s came under attack by M – 72’s fired from all sides, with multiple rockets destroying three tanks and severely damaging another two. A platoon of Dhole tanks with a company of mechanised infantry in M – 113s, led a desperate counterattack that finally halted the PAVN attack. Without supporting infantry to exploit the hole created by the Vietnamese tanks, the PAVN commander withdrew their tanks to the start line.

Several military historians have asserted that if the PAVN infantry had followed closely behind their armour, that the Cambodian perimeter would have collapsed under the weight of the morning attack. This is a logical conclusion corroborated by the interviews conducted in the after-action review. Without the ARVK and USAF strikes delaying the PAVN advance, along with the counter attack launched by the mechanised battalion, it is likely that 2 Div would have been overrun. Fortunately for Cambodia this did not occur.

The battle raged throughout the remainder of the day, while night slowly descended over the battlefield. Darkness cloaked the movement of both sides, as they reorganised and prepared themselves for the following day. To wear down the Cambodian defenders, PAVN soldiers continued to launch probing attacks throughout the night, while ARVK AC – 47 ‘Spooky’ gunships prowled over the countryside raining fire at the PAVN beneath them. General Nguyen’s staff adjusted their plan to incorporate the lessons learned during the day, supremely confident that the Cambodians were close to collapse and would disintegrate the following day. Conversely, the Cambodians had weathered the onslaught of the first day, with the air power available from the USAF and ARVK, a quiet optimism pervaded despite the near collapse of their lines on the first day. For the 33,000 soldiers on both sides, the light rain and intermittent skirmishes meant that it was a cold and sleepless night.

The opening stanza of the second day, commenced with the crack of 100 mm rounds fired from SU - 100s concealed behind the tree line, at the fighting positions of the besieged Paratroopers. Plumes of smoke and dirt engulfed the southern perimeter, as the dispersed PAVN infantry rushed forward like ants. They crossed over two thirds of the open ground, before they were fired upon by the Cambodian howitzers. The queen of the battlefield only slowed, but did not halt their advance, as the first wave reached the outer edge of the now shrunken defensive perimeter.

The Paratroopers and the Vietnamese became locked into hand to hand combat, where battle started or ended with a bayonet thrust or parry. At this moment, General Nguyen launched a second attack towards the exposed western flank of 2 Div, led by the remaining T – 55s, accompanied by an PAVN infantry battalion. With the 1st and 2nd BPKs engaged, the second attack shattered the Cambodian western perimeter. The 3rd BPM which had been isolated by the main thrust of both PAVN attacks, used their remaining M-72s to staunch the relentless PAVN advance. However, their attack was largely ineffectual due to the suppressive fire from the PAVN infantry and the ZSU 57s that raked their positions.

Recognising the precariousness of the situation, General Del committed his reserve the 42nd Battalion in their M – 113s and his remaining Dhole tanks. Accompanying, the mechanised infantry buttoned up in their M – 113s were Marines from the 2nd Battalion, Bravo Company that hitched a ride on the hulls of the Dhole tanks, as they raced to shore up the western flank. The fighting became desperate as the tanks engaged in combat at point blank range, but the PAVN continued their relentless advance and, stood on the precipice of success. Reluctantly, General Del ordered his artillery to fire upon the western perimeter with white phosphorous, to delay the PAVN advance long enough, that a new defensive line could be established. It was a decision that despite its military necessity and success has haunted General Del ever since.

The Cambodians urgently requested an ‘Arc Light’ strike to halt the Vietnamese assault, by mid-morning a cell of B – 52 were retasked. Noting the closeness of the two forces, the B – 52s attacked the form up points that had been identified, which were also where the second wave was massing. Most of the Vietnamese soldiers did not see the bombs fall, but every combatant felt the shockwaves generated from 190 tonnes of bombs raining devastation upon the now pockmarked Cambodian landscape.

It was the silence from the Cambodian 105 mm howitzer guns, who had been continuously firing throughout the morning, that heralded the arrival of friendly aircover. In this case, Pontiac flight, led by Captain J.Smith USMC, with four A – 4 Skyhawks joined the battlefield at tree top height. The four A-4s fired their rockets at the advancing tanks and, strafed the exposed infantry on the southern perimeter with their 20mm cannons. The PAVN recovered from their shock at the air strike, and ineffectually fired several SA – 7s at the departing aircraft.

As Pontiac flight departed Captain Smith advised the controlling FAC, Birddog, of their remaining ordinance. Birddog listened to the Cambodian pleas for a second strike, and instructed Pontiac flight to make a second pass. The next USAF air strike was at least fifteen minutes away and, another strike could prevent the Cambodians from being overrun in the interim.

Pontiac One, Two, and Three had used most their ordinance on the first pass, leaving Pontiac Four to lead the attack. Second Lieutenant Phy declined the offers by his flight mates to conduct a diversionary attack, flew his A – 4 to the north - west away from 2 Div. Once clear of the battlefield, Phy banked his A – 4 to the south, commencing his second run. Phy fired his remaining rockets at the PAVN armour astride the position, destroying two T – 54s in the first pass. Jinking his aircraft, he walked the rounds from his 20 mm cannons into the ranks of the advancing PAVN soldiers. Pulling out of his strafing run, Phy banked the aircraft into a hard-left hand turn, popping a string of incandescent flares. This did not deceive the twin SAM – 7s that locked onto his exhaust, causing a 1.5 kg warhead to explode in his engine, reducing his aircraft to metal confetti that rained across the battlefield. Phy’s attack had bought the Cambodian defenders sufficient time to reorganise their defences.

The 308th Infantry division resumed their advance on 5 Brigade, with the Vietnamese soldiers dispersed to minimise casualties from indirect and small arms fire. Despite their dispersed formation, the Vietnamese sustained casualties from the artillery fire as their attack was beaten back, but it had still taken support away from the beleaguered southern Cambodian perimeter.

General Nguyen’s staff realised that with the losses sustained by the 308th and 5th Infantry Divisions, combined with the near eradication of the accompanying armoured formations, that the Vietnamese now possessed insufficient strength to overrun 2 Div. Dispassionately, General Nguyen ordered both divisions to disengage. As night fell, the Cambodian positions came under probing attack and sporadic indirect fire, to mask the withdrawal of the main PAVN forces.

It was not until the following morning, when the Cambodian clearing patrols failed to encounter any Vietnamese soldiers, that the battle for Stung Treng was declared over. Operation Suryarvarman II did not permanently cut the Truong Son trail, but that had not been part of the original plan. In all other aspects, it had been a resounding success, the Cambodians interrupted the flow of Communist supplies into South Vietnam, and with the withdrawal of two PAVN divisions to face the Cambodian interlopers, eased the pressure on the besieged South Vietnamese I Corps. However, covert diplomatic negotiations in a foreign capital, once more overshadowed the Cambodian military’s efforts.

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Mon Sep 25, 2017 11:59 pm 

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Chapter Nine: Life is a brief intermission

“Life is a brief intermission, between birth and death, enjoy it.”

The Paris Peace Accords removed the United States of America from the conflict in Vietnam, and a weary American public concentrated on their day to day life. Nixon had secretly promised President Minh that he would use airpower to support the Saigon government should it be necessary. Indeed, during the confirmation hearing of the Secretary of Defence James Schlesinger, he was criticised by some Senators for stating that he would recommend a resumption of U.S. bombing in North Vietnam, if North Vietnam launched a major offensive against South Vietnam. These criticisms were quietly observed by all parties in South East Asia. Once Cambodian papers published the terms of the agreement, they were greeted with utter dismay by the Cambodians. Like their South Vietnamese allies, the covert promise of American intervention reassured them that they had not been abandoned to their fate.

Both the North Vietnamese and the South Vietnamese routinely flouted the Accord’s provisions, eliciting no response from the United States. Steadily, the Communists enlarged the area under their control, incrementally building up their military infrastructure in the ‘liberated’ areas. However, the Nixon Administration appeared to be in a continual state of siege, while the Democrats en masse opposed further support to South Vietnam and Cambodia. Overall, the Great Republic turned her gaze inwards, as a nation collectively tried to forget the last ten years spent needlessly expending blood and treasure into the Vietnamese quagmire. As one Cambodian cabinet minister quipped, the previous blank cheque offered by the Americans was unlikely to be cashed without bouncing.

An example of this was the withdrawal of the USMC advisory team in 1973 following the Case-Church amendment. By August 15, 1973, 95% of American troops and their allies had left Vietnam, along with Cambodia and Laos under the Case-Church Amendment. The amendment, which was approved by the U.S. Congress in June 1973, prohibited further U.S. military activity in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, unless the President secured Congressional approval in advance, which was unlikely to be forthcoming.

The impact of the withdrawal is discussed below, from the then Captain James Smith, USMC:

“The ‘Bodes presented each of us with a lacquered Buddha as a farewell present, before we boarded a Pan Am flight back Stateside. It was a good feeling to be a passenger again, and then reality hit as I disembarked. At the time, the military were on the nose, and my countrymen made that clear to me. Apart from the Customs Officer, no one spoke with me, or even looked at me… as I threaded my way through the thronging crowds carrying my duffle bags. The duty driver was late, so I sat alone on a bench outside the airport as I waited for my ride. That was my welcome back home.”

A small Israeli training mission replaced the American training team, and once more assumed responsibility for developing the Cambodian military’s professional capabilities. Taking stock of the aggressive North Vietnamese actions, and the possibility of the Americans reneging upon their covert assurances, forced the Cambodians to reassess their military capabilities. During Operation Suryarvarman II, the indigenous Dhole tank had fared indifferently against the Vietnamese T – 54 Main Battle Tank. Then again, fighting a Soviet Main Battle Tank in an up gunned light tank, was a thoroughly unappealing option for most Armoured Corps crewman. Further, within the close confines of jungle warfare, it was the tank that fired first that usually survived, which promised to wear down the fewer Cambodian armoured reserves. Major Rouy shares his thoughts below:

“A Dhole provided you with protection against most enemy fire, but against a T-54 it could easily become your coffin. I remember a near miss, where a ten-cm shell from a T-54 tank went within centimetres of our turret and, we decided not to stay around too long after that. In open combat… we never had a chance. So, we always had to be one step ahead. It was only because we could call up air strikes and had more tanks in theatre than the Vietnamese that we eventually won.”

However, the poor state of the Cambodian treasury meant that the Army could only equip a single Tank Regiment. Several MBTs were considered including the Leopard One, M – 48 Patton and, the Centurion Mk V. The superb Leopard was ruled out on a cost and complexity basis, leaving the two warhorses of the Vietnamese era, the M 48 Patton and the Centurion to fight it out.

The M – 48 was used as the Main Battle Tank by the Royal Thai Army and by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, which potentially allowed maintenance costs to be pooled by sharing deep maintenance facilities and, provided an opportunity for joint training exercises. However, there M-48 had significant drawbacks, which in time were eventually resolved. A notable flaw, was if an enemy round penetrated the M-48 turret, hydraulic oil leaks liberally coated the turret’s inside, leaving the tank a single spark away from destruction. An attribute that was usually lethal for an armoured engagement. Further, the Centurion 105 mm L 7 gun was clearly superior to the Patton’s 90 mm gun, and there was direct evidence of the Centurion’s superiority over the M48 in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965. Although some historians assert that the smaller force of Indian Army Centurions were better trained, which while true, they still defeated a much larger force of M48s.

Whereas, Centurions had also served in Indochina with the Australian Army, proving itself as a reliable and capable weapons systems in Australian hands. This reputation was derived from the Centurion’s robust combat performance, along with its ease of maintenance and repair. Additionally, the Centurion possessed good cross-country mobility, but like the M – 48 Patton was too heavy for many of South Vietnam’s bridges. Despite considerable scepticism of many observers and senior Australian Army personnel, the Centurion proved particularly effective at fighting in the paddy-fields and the thick jungle of Vietnam

The Medium Tank Trials Unit (MTTU) was a temporary Cambodian Army unit formed to evaluate the M 48 Patton and Centurion tanks, to determine the most suitable tank to be used by the Heavy Brigade. The MTTU was formed in late 1972 by converting B Squadron from the recently re raised 1st Royal Tank Regiment. The MTTU personnel were trained in the United States and Australia in August 1972 receiving two M 48 Pattons, two Centurion Mk Vs and a M 48 recovery vehicle in the middle of the year. The tank trails commenced in late 1972 and were conducted at the School of Armour at Das Kanchor, and the jungle warfare training school at Bamnak in Pursat Province.

The trials were completed in March 1973 with the MTTU reverting to B Squadron 1st Royal Tank Regiment. American, Australian and Israeli Armoured Corps officers imparted their combat experience in both tanks, their shared experiences added further weight to the evaluation. Ultimately, the Centurion was declared the winner of the competition, not only due to the superiority of the Centurion relative to the Patton, but also due to American domestic opinion, which now openly shunned any further intervention in South East Asia. Consequently, the Centurion entered service with the Cambodian 1st Royal Tank Regiment in 1974.

Fortuitously, the Australian Army retired the Centurion Mk III tanks from their reserve regiments in 1972 to reduce their operational costs. Subsequently, the Cambodian diplomatic mission made an offer to purchase the mothballed reserve tanks for scrap value to the Whitlam government, which the Cambodians expected would be rejected out of hand. Beset with a budgetary crisis, it was an offer the dysfunctional Whitlam government readily accepted. The newly purchased tanks were sent to Bandiana in Victoria by rail, where they were modified prior to being shipped to Cambodia.

Swarthy men wearing plain olive-green uniforms speaking with a middle eastern accent, arrived in Bandiana, and started the upgrade program. Rumours swirled around the Australian Army that the tanks were in fact not going to Cambodia, but to Israel to replace the horrific losses sustained by the IDF Armoured Corps during the recent Yom Kippur war. Ultimately, it was a misconception that worked in the Cambodians favour.

The Israelis installed a 105-mm gun into the Centurion, along with a Continental AVDS 1790 – 2A diesel engine mated to the Allison CD850-6 transmission. The armour was upgraded to Mk 13 standard and, retained the pintle-mounted .30 calibre machine gun for its better close-quarters anti-infantry capability. Once the process was completed, the tanks were then secretly shipped to Cambodia.

In the interim, a small Cambodian Centurion fleet remained at Puckapunyal in Victoria to enable their armoured crews to complete their conversion training, beneath the watchful eyes of the Australian Army instructors. The high rates of reliability for the Centurion Tank in Cambodian service, reflect well on the Cambodian trooper and their Australian instructors. The instruction received by the Cambodian soldier is discussed by the then Major Rouy below:

“The Australians occupied a place somewhere between the relaxed French attitude and the obsessive Israeli tendencies. They focused on getting the job done, while still finding time for a cuppa.”

Due to the secrecy surrounding the purchase, Alpha Squadron 1 RTR remained equipped with the Dhole Mk II, while the remaining Squadrons were equipped with the Centurion. Although, rumours of their purchase circulated, 1RTR only paraded their Dhole tanks during the annual Independence Day celebrations. Due to the Centurion’s size and the fact that their crews’ considered them the apex armoured predator in Indochina, they were dubbed the Tiger, a name that remained with them for the duration of their service.

Likewise, the AVRK concentrated on growing their projection capabilities, and this was shown during their participation in the inaugural Exercise Cope Thunder held at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines in 1974. Conceived by Brigadier General Richard G. Head, the exercise was devised to give aircrews from across Asia, their first taste of warfare in a realistic training environment. The impetus for the training emerged from post-Vietnam analysis that indicated most combat losses occurred during an aircrew’s first eight to 10 missions. Therefore, the goal of Cope Thunder, was to provide each aircrew with these first vital missions, increasing their chance of surviving combat.

The exercise refined Cambodia’s doctrine for employing their A-4 Skyhawks, considering the lessons learned at terrible cost by the IDF and the USAF during the Yom Kippur conflict and Operation Linebacker II. The participating Cambodian aircrews flew their newly delivered A – 4 C Skyhawks, in a variety of simulated missions including: close air support, strike and air to air engagements. During the strike missions, the Cambodians participated in air to air refuelling for the first time, and integrated the new Skyhawks’ ECM capability into their mission planning. After Exercise Cope Thunder the AVRK purchased several refuelling buddy packs, allowing the AVRK to launch air strikes further afield than previously noted, a capability that soon proved useful.

Although, the inevitability of further conflict was apparent to all parties within Indochina, particularly as the ARVN forces within I Corps participated in the heaviest fighting since the Tet or Easter Offensives. However, this did not stop or slow the parties hosted by the Vietnamese and Cambodian business elites at the Cambodian beachside resort town at Kep. Indeed, the famous roulette tables at the Bakor casino remained popular for a weekend jaunt, as people tried to briefly escape from reality. A national football league was formed in 1974 with eight teams, the final was played at the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh and, was the highest-ranking show broadcast on National Television Khmer, the Cambodian national broadcaster.

Following the resignation of the North Vietnamese bete noir President Nixon due to the Watergate scandal in 1974. The ever-wary North Vietnamese sensed that the political winds of chance favoured a military solution, the Politburo met in late 1974 to discuss renewing hostilities. Apparently, the decision to launch the campaign was not unanimous, and allegedly the meeting became quite heated. As there is no record of any dissent in the transcribed minutes, or of any objections raised by a single party, it is likely that dissent coalesced around a senior figure. Nevertheless, the Politburo officially approved a renewed military campaign in the South. Strangely, the genesis for Campaign 2 - 75 could be attributed to the Red Chinese Marshall Peng Dehuai, whom in 1954 advised the Viet Minh to launch an attack through the Central Highlands. His advice echoed a key stratagem from Chinese chess, namely that players should control the centre of the board, thereby establishing a barrier that divides their opponent's force and, prevents them from cooperating effectively. Twenty years later the People’s Army of Vietnam General Staff sought to achieve the same outcome through the Central Highlands.

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 26, 2017 12:05 am 

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Chapter Ten: The flight of the Phoenix

“And one cold starry night; whatever your belief, the phoenix will take flight, over the seas of grief, to sing her thrilling song to stars and waves and sky, for neither old, nor young, the Phoenix does not die.” May Sarton

The importance of the Central Highlands to the continued existence of the Republic of Vietnam was equal to the Golan Heights for Israel, or the Fulda Gap for West Germany. North and South Vietnamese staff officers turned their attention to either capturing the Central Highlands and thereby separating South Vietnam in two, or attempting to defend a rugged mountainous region poorly served by roads and other infrastructure. The key to defending such a large and mountainous area for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), depended upon the provision of accurate intelligence, combined with an ability to rapidly reinforce outlying positions in the event of attack. The sparsely populated region presented little opportunity to develop extensive human intelligence networks, meaning that intelligence could only be gleaned by regular patrolling combined with signals intelligence. Furthermore, despite the emphasis on improving the Vietnamese Air Force’s capabilities from an Imperial Iranian Air Force training mission, had focused on the fast jet element at the expense of tactical and strategic lift. The neglect of the less glamourous aspects of the Air Force, constrained the ability of South Vietnam to reinforce their soldiers within the Highlands.

In the Central Highlands, there are only two East to West roads, Route 19 and 21, that climb from the coastal strip to the Highlands. A single road, Route 14, winds its way northwards through the Central Highlands paralleling the coastline. Only at Pleiku and Buôn Ma Thuột does Route 14 intersect with both Route 19 or 21. Naturally, both towns were critically important for any potential PAVN offensive. Once more the PAVN General Staff hunched over their maps and considered the merits of attacking Pleiku or Buôn Ma Thuột.

Pleiku had been the focus of several unsuccessful campaigns previously and was heavily defended, with few concealed avenues of approach. It was far closer to the North Vietnamese logistical support base in Southern Laos and the DRK. Buôn Ma Thuột by comparison was surrounded by coffee plantations that afforded excellent cover, and was lightly defended in comparison. But its lax defence was also a function of the greater distance from the PAVN supply lines. Surprisingly it wasn’t the concealed avenues of approach or the limited number of defenders that appealed to the General Staff. Rather, it was the presence of the Mac Hai De supply depot, a potential boon to the logisticians and, access to Route 21 that provided an almost unimpeded approach to Saigon.

Any decision to attack Buôn Ma Thuột floundered on two problems, moving the troops across large swathes of jungle without alerting ARVN intelligence, and the attack itself. Several PAVN officers argued that they should ‘peel away’ their outer defences before striking. Noting the distance involved, combined with the fact that the ARVN units assigned to II Corps outnumbered their PAVN counterparts, meant that this option carried a fair degree of risk. Alternatively, a second plan was devised whereby the PAVN would strike directly at Buôn Ma Thuột destroying the Provincial and Divisional headquarters in a single swoop throwing the enemy into disarray.

Within II Corps the ARVN force was led by General Pham Van Phu, a 25-year army veteran, who had fought with the 5th Airborne Battalion at Dien Bien Phu, marched out with the proud 1st Division during Lam Son 719, and had developed a reputation for courage under fire. His service jacket denoted the award of the French Croix de Guerre twice, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry seventeen times, while Phu had been wounded in action four times. Unsurprisingly, a man renowned for personal courage on the battlefield, also suffered from ill health later in life. In fact, the only reason he had assumed command of II Corp, was due to his predecessor Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Toan being dismissed for corruption. Furthermore, his aggressive battlefield style belied two critical shortcomings for a senior appointment, firstly an inattentiveness to detail and, an inability to conceptualise events at a much larger level. These inadequacies would not have been fatal, if he had been supported by a professional staff that could have ameliorated them, but sadly for South Vietnam this was not the case. By 1974 the war was vastly different with the PAVN deploying large mobile forces with heavy organic firepower ably supported by a sophisticated logistical network synchronised with superb planning. Ultimately, Phu was the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Opposing General Phu was General Van Tien Dung of the People’s Army of Vietnam, similar to his South Vietnamese adversary had served in the military for twenty five years, cultivating a reputation for being intelligent, considered and strategic by his peers. He was also supported by a professional staff that had relentlessly gamed every possible scenario and developed workable solutions for each possible contingency. The difference between the two sides could not have been starker. The B – 3 front slowly moved their soldiers under the cover of the jungle leaves towards the unsuspecting city of Buôn Ma Thuột. Despite his forces being outnumbered overall throughout II Corp, General Van attained local superiority over the ARVN defenders at Buôn Ma Thuột outnumbering them 5 to 1.

The first phase of Campaign 2 – 75 was a series of attacks launched in and around Pleiku to divert the focus of the ARVN defenders away from Buôn Ma Thuột. Their diversionary efforts were an unqualified success, despite the head of the ARVN Signal Intelligence Directorate, Brigadier General Pham Huu Nhon, flying to Phu’s headquarters to warn him of the looming assault on Buôn Ma Thuột. Meanwhile, ARVN long range reconnaissance patrols returned with physical evidence of a large PAVN troop formation, accompanied with armour, had bypassed Pleiku continuing southwards towards Buôn Ma Thuột. In a stunning example of incompetence, despite the intercepted signals and the physical intelligence, II Corps did not reinforce Buôn Ma Thuột.

The third phase of Campaign 2 – 75 was the actual attack on Buôn Ma Thuột, as phase two was a movement phase. A two-hour artillery barrage started the assault, followed by an attack spearheaded by the 198th Sapper Regiment. The sappers had four objectives, the 53rd and 44th ARVN Regiment Base Camps, the Mai Hac De ammunition storage facility and the larger Phung Duc airfield east of town. The attack was launched by five separate columns, who attacked the town from a different direction towards their specific objective. The airfield was chosen to prevent the South Vietnamese from escaping the net, or from receiving reinforcements. The first three PAVN columns had eight tanks with eight armoured personnel carriers and an anti-aircraft battalion, while the remaining columns consisted of infantry only. Leading the fourth column was the 95B Regiment, the crack unit that held the Quang Tri citadel for a week in 1972, and the fifth by the 24th Infantry Regiment. Ultimately, Phu gambled that a massive first wave assault would be enough to overwhelm the South Vietnamese defenders.

Opposing the overwhelming PAVN attack were two understrength South Vietnamese battalions from the 53rd Infantry regiment, accompanied by a single troop of M -113 armoured personnel carriers. Phu had flown into Buôn Ma Thuột the day before the attack to see Colonel Vu Quang, the deputy commander of the 23rd Division, and the Darlac province chief Colonel Nguyen Trong Luat. During the meeting Phu had assured the two men, that the city would be promptly reinforced with another battalion if it was attacked. It is ironic that Phu’s helicopter was shot down by an SA – 7 Strela launched by the first wave of assaulting PAVN troops during the morning assault, the same troops that he had steadfastly refused to believe would attack Ban Me Thuot in the first place.

122mm rockets rained down on Buôn Ma Thuột airfield, which was followed by an infantry assault that captured the intact airfield, securing the city’s eastern approach. Next to fall was the arms cache which was captured within the first three hours, Colonel Luat sent a Regional Forces (“RF”) company, commanded by Major Ly, to counter attack the arms cache, but were beaten back by the North Vietnamese. Ly separated his Company into two columns, leaving only a section to continue harassing the North Vietnamese, while launching a double envelopment on the arms cache. A small flicker of light caught the eye of an alert Communist sentry, revealing the covert approach from the northern column. Dai Uy (Captain) Tran destroyed the open-air dump blocking the northern column’s attack, which allowed his sappers to focus solely on the southern column. After a short violent skirmish, the second column was badly mauled, and Major Ly reluctantly ordered the RF Company to withdraw.

The 44th Battalion’s position was quickly overrun, but the 53rd regiment continued to fight. Their defence is memorable for the counterattack led by their Commanding Officer Colonel Vo An, who retook two machine gun nests that had been overrun by PAVN soldiers, and in then personally directed the recaptured machine guns blunting the PAVN attack. A second attack was launched by the Sappers, accompanied by the 27th Infantry Battalion, which was also defeated by the soldiers from the 53rd. Their stoic defence was inconsequential to the city’s overall defence, as they were surrounded without access to resupply or reinforcement.

Colonel Luat personally organised the defence of the 23rd Division’s headquarters, including the siting of their lone anti-armour weapon, a recoilless rifle, directly opposite the gate. The recoilless rifle crew had destroyed the leading T – 54 tank during the first wave, and its burnt out shell now blocked the entrance into the headquarters. Indeed, the only reason the headquarters had established an organised defence, was due to the alertness of the posted sentries, along with the strengthening of the guard post with sandbags and several machine guns. Excluding the lone recoilless rifle mounted on the M -113, the only other anti-armour weapon available to the ARVN soldiers was a small cache of M – 72s. As an An Loc veteran, Colonel Luat had ensured that his soldiers could properly use the M – 72, a commitment that resulted in several burning tank carcasses near the 23rd division headquarters by the late afternoon.

Despite the disorganisation at the Corps level, a flight of VNAF A – 37s briefly orbited overhead, attacking the streams of PAVN columns advancing into the city. Ultimately, these limited acts of resistance, did not alter the fact that the PAVN controlled the arms cache, both airfields and had isolated the city from reinforcement. Colonel Luat sent an urgent cable to the Joint General Staff requesting that a relief force be sent to Buôn Ma Thuột to stabilise the Central Highlands, but his request was denied. The JGS still believed that the attack on Buôn Ma Thuột was a feint, intended to draw away ARVN forces from Pleiku.

On the second day, the 21st Ranger Regiment led by Colonel Dau attempted to break the PAVN encirclement, but were beaten back by the Communists. Withdrawing from combat, the 21st Ranger Regiment constructed a defensive position on Hill 581, just east of the city. The echo of rifle and machine gun fire, gave hope to the isolated South Vietnamese defenders that reinforcements had arrived. While, an early morning reconnaissance flight by an RF – 5E over the city corroborated an impending rescue attempt.

Unfortunately, once the reconnaissance images revealed the disparity of the two forces, and the utter hopelessness of the defenders’ situation. The Joint General Staff recommended that the remaining ARVN survivors be allowed to wither on the vine, with the caveat that a limited re supply effort should occur to fix a larger PAVN force in place. South Vietnamese intelligence estimated that the defenders could hold out with limited supplies for another week, which would provide sufficient time to construct a defensive line east of the M’Drak pass, forestalling an attack on Saigon. Consequently, the 21st Ranger Regiment was withdrawn eastwards towards the M’Drak Pass.

Two flights of A – 37 Dragonflies attacked the Communist forces in Ban Me Thuot, concealing the 21st Ranger Regiment’s withdrawal. However, the Communist anti-aircraft regiment destroyed three of the VNAF aircraft, while the remaining five aircraft returned to base. Concurrent, with the air strike a C – 123 Provider completed a resupply mission, resupplying the Headquarters via parachute. Due to the strength of the anti-aircraft batteries no further resupply missions were attempted, with the VNAF confined to strikes by F – 5 Freedom Fighters. Which with their limited ordinance and loiter capability, only had a marginal impact on the Communists, and these token efforts were also soon discontinued. Surprisingly, it was not the lack of ammunition or food supplies that finally broke the remaining defenders, but rather the destruction of the T – 54 wreckage, that had blocked the gate, by a VNAF A-37 Dragonfly. The path now lay open for a final assault on the Divisional Headquarters.

Recognising the unavoidable reality that their headquarters was about to be overrun, Colonel Luat ordered that all classified documents were incinerated and, gave permission for small groups of ARVN soldiers to attempt to break out. After holding out for four days with intermittent air support and running low on ammunition, the PAVN forces finally overwhelmed the remaining ARVN soldiers in the late afternoon. The shot and battered South Vietnamese flag that had stood as a symbol of defiance was thrown to the ground, while a North Vietnamese flag raced up the flagpole. A fluttering North Vietnamese flag showed the world that Buôn Ma Thuột had fallen.

The captured ARVN soldiers were housed in a temporary enclosure at the Phung Duc airport, where they were isolated from any remaining loyalists. During their initial interview, their PAVN captors took great delight in taunting their prisoners that only 100 out of 3,000 ARVN soldiers had survived. The South Vietnamese sat behind the wire fences in the open, dejectedly watching the triumphant PAVN soldiers streaming eastwards on Route 21 towards Saigon.

Operation Garuda

For the Cambodians, the fall of Buôn Ma Thuột presented a dilemma, should they intervene? Although they had recently created a working relationship with the South Vietnamese, they remained cold allies. However, the threat posed to Cambodia from a reunited Communist Vietnam was likely to be significant. Unbeknownst to the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese had actively entreated with the Cambodians in Phnom Penh, requesting that the Cambodian remain uninvolved in the conflict, which would be handsomely rewarded with trading arrangements. Their argument was that this was an internal matter for the Vietnamese, which in effect meant that they would acquiesce to a Communist victory. This dilemma was discussed robustly within Cabinet and the General Staff. In a split vote of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, with the deciding vote cast by the Prime Minister, the decision was made to intervene.

The initial Cambodian concept of operations was to initiate an attack similar in size and scope to Operation Suryavarmann II. However, since the offensive in 1972 the Khmer Rouge had fortified that approach and the PAVN had two Divisions reinforcing their Khmer allies. This option was discarded, while the staff officers realised that the Cambodians needed to strike Ban Me Thuot itself.

A key point of the PAVN advance was that they were using the ARVN arms cache to supply their forces. The Mai Hac De arms cache was the largest cache in the Highlands and was spread over a piece of land 1,300 metres long and 750 metres wide with sixty-four warehouses and open-air dumps within the cache. If the Cambodians destroyed the arms cache, then it would impede the NVA’s advance and, provide ARVN time to construct a defensive line.

Another quickly discarded option, was to drive straight through the jungle towards Ban Me Thuot, but this option was unfeasible due to time constraints and the road move eliminating surprise. Therefore, any plan would be based on an air insertion and extraction, which meant that the airfield needed to be seized.

Over the next couple of days several scenarios were gamed, including an airfield seizure supported by a follow-on force consisting of Dhole tanks with M-113s, which would strike westwards destroying the arms cache. This plan not only required a degree of coordination, but also relied upon the availability of USAF strategic lift assets, which was unlikely to be forthcoming in the current political climate. Therefore, this option was excluded.

This left a final option of conducting an air strike on the arms cache and the PAVN Divisional Headquarters. This option was chosen as two of the three PAVN air defence regiments had accompanied their troops eastwards, leaving the city defended by a single air defence regiment. Time was of the essence, as the USAF air attaché started to take his morning coffee at the General Staff’s headquarters, along with the Israeli Air Force ‘instructors,’ whom had replaced the American instructors in 1973.

Furthermore, reconnaissance photos revealed that the captured ARVN soldiers were temporarily detained at the airport, which presented a rescue opportunity. Consequently, the mission scope was broadened to include a rescue operation.

Phase One of Operation Garuda commenced with the seizure of Phung Duc airfield, east of Buôn Ma Thuột, by Echo Company 2 Batalion Parachutiste Khmer. Their primary mission was to liberate the ARVN prisoners and to conduct a quick search for any information that might be useful for intelligence purposes. Prior to the attack an 'Air America' EC – 47 would arrive on station and would jam the radar systems of the 523rd PAVN Air Defence Regiment and any associated PAVN radio frequencies. The attack on the airfield had been scheduled for an hour before dawn and to complement the confusion wrought by the jamming, four C – 123s were painted in Aeroflot colours.

Despite its success, the formal decision to liberate the ARVN prisoners incarcerated at Phung Duc airfield as part of Operation Garuda was made by the General Staff five days before the aerial strike was to occur. The late inclusion into the plan afforded limited opportunity for training, but the Paratrooper demi – brigade used every available minute. Within twenty-four hours of their operational inclusion, Echo Company conducted an air field seizure exercise at a regional airport. A second exercise was held forty-eight hours after the first, at the same airport, with an ARVK Regiment acting as the Vietnamese defenders. Because of both exercises Echo Company was divided into two distinct teams: Red Force responsible for liberating the South Vietnamese prisoners, while Green Force was responsible for securing the airfield. Green Force’s secondary task was to collect any intelligence documents within the airfield.

One of the lessons learned from the practice airfield seizures was the need for the paratroopers to have a greater amount of organic firepower to assist with their assault. Several vehicles were considered including the M – 113, which was discarded due to its size. This left the V – 100 Cadillac Gage Commando and the BTR 40 as the remaining two options. The BTR 40 was chosen, as there was no need for an all-terrain transport, as any vehicles would only be used on the airfield. Additionally, the PAVN also used the vehicle, which strengthened the overall deception plan. Accordingly, the four BTR – 40s were divided equally between Red and Green Force, with each vehicle mounted in a separate C – 123 Provider. After landing, Green Force would drive straight towards the Air Traffic Control tower, while Red Force advanced towards the prisoner's compound.

In the early morning, four C -123 Providers painted with Aeroflot colours approached Phung Duc airfield from the east. As the early morning rays of sunlight glinted off the Provider transport’s bare metal finish, a Khmer Krom hailed the airport terminal in Vietnamese requesting permission to land. The sleepy sentry raced downstairs to wake up the duty officer, while the remaining communist soldiers, awoke to see four transport aircraft landing with Aeroflot markings. Emerging from the ramp were four BTR 40s, which each had two North Vietnamese flags mounted on their bonnet. Soldiers wearing green pith helmets could be seen sitting in the troop compartment, sowing further confusion in the minds of the defenders.

Both Red and Green Force raced towards their respective objectives, the prison compound and the airport terminal. The lead Green Force BTR 40, traversed their M – 2 Browning machine gun towards a communication node, on the side of the control tower. A short burst destroyed the node, shutting down the airfield’s communication network. Red Force killed the bewildered PAVN compound guards, as the paratroopers quickly secured the enclosure. Red Force then searched the compound to locate additional ARVN prisoners for extraction, and to collect any intelligence documents. One of their search teams located Colonel Luat, who had been isolated in the temporary interrogation facility, shackled to a bloody floor waiting to undergo his second 'interview.'

Green Force's initial success after destroying the communications node was short lived, as the surviving PAVN soldiers returned fire from the control tower, using whatever scraps of cover they could find. The strike commander faced a difficult proposition would isolating the tower be sufficient or did he need to storm the tower? Due to the tower's central position on the airfield, which would allow its defenders to destroy the transport aircraft during the extraction meant that isolation was not an option. This left only one option, the tower needed to be assaulted and the possibility of close quarter battle in a building clothed in darkness had meant that Green Force did not solely consist of Paratroopers. A stick of Pathfinders had been included in Green Force and, they now led the assault into the tower.

The fight for the control tower degenerated into a skirmish fought at close range, where rifle butt, grenade and bayonet were as equally important as a bullet. Green Force successfully secured the tower, with four soldiers killed and two wounded in the process. It is also a reflection of the savageness of the fighting that no PAVN prisoners were taken by either Red or Green Force.

Following the tower being secured the ARVN prisoners were quickly escorted onto the waiting aircraft and remained under armed guard until the force returned to Pochetong Air Field. To speed up the extraction, the four BTR 40s were destroyed rather than recovered, while satchel charges destroyed several PAVN trucks parked nearby. By eight a.m. the four Cambodian C – 123 s rolled down the runway and climbed into the sky, starting a gentle loop towards Cambodia. Meanwhile, the first elements of Phase II prepared to strike.

101 Squadron equipped with the modified A – 4 B and A - 4C Skyhawks, was the premier squadron within the AVRK and, as the sole fast jet squadron the only choice for the mission. Operation Garuda was initially viewed as a madman’s dream, involving a strike that would destroy a divisional supply depot, while simultaneously liberating Prisoners. At a more practical level, the strike involved eight of the squadron’s fifteen serviceable Skyhawks, leaving the remaining four single seat Skyhawks responsible for air defence. For the pilots that remained in their cockpits at Pochetong airbase on intercept standby, it was both terribly disappointing not to be part of the attack, while it was also the highest of compliments, in that they were the Squadron’s best air to air pilots. Despite their élan, 101 squadron remained relatively inexperienced in planning a strike mission, and they were ably assisted by several international parties.

It was fortuitous for the Operation Garuda planners that Colonel Mark Berent, a veteran strike pilot was the American military attaché. With his extensive operational experience flying strike missions over North Vietnam to draw upon, combined with his ability to source the latest satellite images allowed the Cambodians to prepare for the mission, in a way that would have been impossible if they attempted to launch this mission independently. Furthermore, Berent was also able to have an 'Air American' EC – 47 on station, to identify any search radars and, to jam their radar frequencies. Based on the satellite pictures the strike package would ingress from the West, because the PAVN expected an air strike to come from the east and had laid their anti-aircraft artillery accordingly.

The remaining PAVN anti-aircraft artillery regiment the 593rd had orientated their weapons emplacements to cover a possible attack from the East or South by VNAF F – 5 A Freedom Fighters or A – 37 Dragonflies. The VNAF with its limited number of fast jets had prioritised attacking the PAVN column barrelling towards the M'Drak pass ignoring the remaining PAVN forces at Buôn Ma Thuột. Reflecting this, the SPAAGs had departed eastwards to protect the armoured column from aerial attack, leaving the towed anti-aircraft artillery in situ around the city. Accordingly, when the S – 60 weapons crews heard the small arms fire coming from the airport, their commanders started scanning the skies to the east for the long-expected attack from the VNAF. Therefore, an attack by ARVK A – 4C Skyhawks ("Skyhawks") from the North West echoed the words from the great Military strategy Sun Tzu in that 'Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.'

Phase II commenced with six A – 4C s separated into three elements, the first pair were responsible for flak suppression and were led by Major David 'Bear' Meyer. Meyer was an Israeli Ai Force veteran who had flown A-4s during the Yom Kippur war. With the transfer of eighteen Skyhawks to Cambodia two billets were created for flight instructors to assist the AVRK with integrating the type into service. He had volunteered out of habit and to his surprise had received his orders to travel to Phnom Penh.

During the operational planning stage, Meyer quietly reviewed the initial plan for an aerial strike conceived by the ARVK Staff Officers after being asked to provide his input by the attaché and had suggested several changes to the plan based upon the lessons learnt by the Israeli Air Force during Yom Kippur. It should not be surprising that with the time constraint and limited experience organising a strike package that the Cambodians had asked if he wanted to lead a flak suppression exercise over Buôn Ma Thuột. For a professional pilot, who was every inch the warrior, this was an opportunity Meyer could not refuse.

Popping up Kali flight destroyed the first site with a mixed bomb load of Mk 82s and BLUs, they then proceeded onto the second flak site, which vainly attempted to traverse their barrels towards the new threat. Although the southern S - 60 site fired several inaccurate bursts towards the two jinking aircraft, they also shared the fate of the first anti-aircraft artillery site. It was only after the mission, as Major Meyer conducted a walk around of ‘his’ bird that he counted the number of holes in the wing, which indicated that the PAVN fire was not as inaccurate as originally thought. Despite the multiple 'bird strikes' sustained by both aircraft, their successful mission had created the opening needed for the follow-on strike elements – Khara and Krasue flights.

The first strike element Khara flight, led by Lieutenant Toch, were assigned to attack the former 23rd ARVN Division's headquarters, which now housed the PAVN II Corps headquarters. The mission planners had realised that the ever-diligent General Hoang Minh Thao would immediately return to his headquarters, once he had been alerted about the attack on the airfield. This provided an excellent opportunity to conduct a decapitation strike against the General and in the worst case destroy the PAVN command structure for II Corps thereby making his role more difficult.

Khara flight ingressed from the North, passing through smoke pillars that rose languidly from the charred remnants of an anti-aircraft artillery site that flashed beneath them. Lieutenant Toch identified his initial point Buon Ma Thuot’s central roundabout and, turned the flight to the south west towards their target. A two-storey white structure rose in the distance with North Vietnamese flags prominently displayed. Sporadic small arms fire rose to meet the two Skyhawks, as they began a shallow dive over the target, pulling up as they released their payload. Four Mk 82s with delayed activation fuses fell from each aircraft, penetrating the headquarters walls prior to exploding. It wasn't until a week after the strike, that the Cambodians Directorate of Intelligence confirmed that the body of General Hoang Minh Thao was found in the rubble.

The final strike element, Krasue flight, attacked the Mai Hac De arms cache from the north west. Krasue flight took their name from a wandering ghost in Cambodian folklore, which sated their perpetual hunger by feasting on raw blood or flesh. Mai Hac De was the largest arms cache in the Central Highlands, spread over a piece of land 1,300 yards long, 750 yards wide, containing sixty-four warehouses and open-air dumps within their fences. The PAVN staff officers knew the limitations of the F – 5 A and A – 37 in VNAF service, concluding that neither type had the range to lead a strike against the arms cache. Accordingly, the arms cache was not covered by an anti-aircraft emplacement, as it was assumed that any VNAF strike would have to fly across the city, thereby exposing themselves to the remaining anti-aircraft sites. On both assumptions, they were entirely correct, but in doing so had ignored the threat presented by the ARVK. Accordingly, Krasue flight’s entire payload of Mk 82 Snake Eyes high explosive and Napalm bombs rained down upon the enormous arms cache, sparking a raging fire that continued to burn for two days. And like audacious bank robbers they were, the Cambodians strike package returned unscathed to Phnom Penh, leaving only burning rubble in their wake.


The worldwide reaction to Cambodia's raid on Buôn Ma Thuột was best summarised as stunned adulation amid banner headlines describing Operation Garuda as 'tactically brilliant.' Cambodians across the country rejoiced in scenes reminiscent of the impromptu street parties that greeted the news of the triumph of Force 'Koh Ker' during Operation Jayavarman II. The Prime Minister In Tam in an interview to the leading broadsheet 'The Nation Post' advised his countrymen and the world at large, “that his Government would feel free to repeat such operations if the need arose in future.” However, this assertion was an empty one, as Cambodia could ill afford to risk their small pool of Skyhawks or their elite soldiers so readily.

Neighbouring countries viewed the operation through a different lens, for the South Vietnamese it highlighted the stark difference in performance between their forces, that had been unable to prevent the PAVN attack, with the success enjoyed by the Cambodians. Unsurprisingly, the South Vietnamese Minh government did not immediately publicly acknowledge the raid, only referred to Operation Garuda as a successful joint operation conducted in and around Buôn Ma Thuột. Although some acerbic journalists asserted that the South Vietnamese contribution to the mission, involved their prisoners being released and the incompetence that had led to the town being captured in the first place.

The Americans had long viewed their South Vietnamese allies as being incompetent and had sadly ascribed the same attributes to the Cambodians. Operation Garuda forced the Americans to revaluate their previous assessment of the Cambodian military and, slightly loosened their arms supply to the Cambodians. Several agreements were subsequently signed between the two countries, which would have been impossible without their military success.

The People’s Army of Vietnam and by extension the Politburo painfully re-evaluated their previous assessment of the capabilities of the Cambodian military. Although their previous estimates had acknowledged the gains in professionalism by the Cambodians, Operation Garuda brought their improvement into clear focus. Accordingly, any future action to unify the South would be preceded with an action to render the Cambodians unable to intervene.

The longer term implications of Operation Garuda is encapsulated by the stanza below:

Doom we utter, doom we will;

Head shall judge, and hand must kill

-Whom? Behold him: eye in eye

Mark him, ere we bid him die.

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 26, 2017 12:07 am 

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Chapter Eleven: The Great Escape

The plight of the South Vietnamese I Corps in 1975 was not of its own making, but originated with the compromises made by the Americans to the North Vietnamese at the Paris Peace Conference. The terms of the agreement allowed the North Vietnamese units to remain in place across South Vietnam, and the Communists quietly strengthened these formations during 1974. Aware of the increasing risk of encirclement posed to I Corps by the reinforced PAVN forces, Lieutenant General Ngo requested approval from the Joint General Staff to consolidate his forces in the southern provinces, leaving only a token tripwire force in the North. Despite the militarily soundness of his request, the Joint General Staff viewed the situation from a political perspective, ordered General Ngo’s forces to remain equally dispersed across I Corps. However, the fall of Buôn Ma Thuột crystallised the accuracy of General Ngo’s professional opinion, and left his command in a precarious situation.

Historically, I Corps with its shared border with North Vietnam and Laos, had traditionally received the best soldiers and equipment fielded by the ARVN. I Corps was based upon the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions, with each Division supported by organic elements including artillery, engineers, and Rangers. The 1st Division was the senior Division within ARVN and had established a reputation equal to their more illustrious peers the Marines and the Paratroopers for performance. The 1st Division also included four rather than the usual three regiments, and was commanded by Brigadier General Tran Quang Khoi. Tran was a cavalry officer, whose mechanised brigade had performed well during Operation Lam Son 719 in 1970.

The 2nd Infantry Division traced its lineage to the first unit activated within the National Army of Vietnam, which was the 2nd Battalion was based at Chu Lai. The 2nd Infantry Division was led by Brigadier General Vu Van Giai, the former deputy commander of 1 Division, who had a reputation for being aggressive in combat and authoritarian in nature.

The Third Division was raised in 1971 filled with former deserters and received second hand equipment from other ARVN divisions often obsolete or in poor repair. To season the unit the 2nd Infantry Regiment was transferred from the First Division to the Third Division, along with the 11th Armoured Cavalry. During the Easter Offensive, the 3rd Division were mismanaged by the Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Hoang Xuan Lam, suffering severe losses. When General Ngo assumed command of I Corps halfway through the Easter Offensive, Ngo temporarily appointed his Deputy Corps Commander Brigadier General Do Cao Tri to assume command of the embattled Division. After a dramatic uplift in their combat performance, General Do remained in command of 3 Div, while continuing to act as the Deputy Commander for I Corps.

Once news of the unfolding disaster in the Central Highlands reached Saigon, a wave of panic paralysed the government and the senior military apparatus. The Joint General Staff immediately convened a meeting to attempt to salvage the situation, and unanimously ordered I Corps to withdraw south to Nha Trang.

The decision for the remaining ARVN forces within I Corps to conduct a break out was politically difficult, as it meant abandoning the five northern most provinces of South Vietnam. However, from a military perspective a withdrawal was the only course of action. The ARVN forces within I Corps had been outnumbered since 1972, and in 1974 had participated in some of the heaviest fighting outside of the 1967 and 1972 offensives. The PAVN forces had slowly interdicted I Corps main supply artery - Route One, constraining the ARVN operational capabilities due to a lack of supplies, which restricted any operation to a maximum of ten days.

To counter the communist encroachment into I Corps and to improve their logistical networks, the three divisions were concentrated into three enclaves based on Hue – Da Nang, Tam Ky to Chu Lai and at Quang Nai. The rationale for this organisation was that the Navy or Air Force could independently resupply each enclave. However, this strategy only made sense if the USAF or USN resupplied the beleaguered enclaves, as with Operation Nickel Grass with the Israelis. This option was tactfully ruled out by the American ambassador Mr Graham Martin during a meeting with President Minh, due to the level of entrenched political opposition, faced by the Ford Administration, to the resumption of American involved in South Vietnam. The abrogation of the previous American guarantee to safeguard South Vietnam sent shockwaves through the domestic political establishment, allegedly Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky smashed a white porcelain vase against his office wall in a fit of rage at the news. Bleakly, if a breakout was not attempted by the South Vietnamese I Corps, each Division would wither on the vine.

Indeed, the difficulty of the 700-kilometre withdrawal was discussed at length by Brigadier General Pham and John Paul Vann, whom as the JGS representatives briefed the thoroughly displeased General Ngo at 1.a.m. Both men were fortunate to have reached the I Corps Headquarters alive, as an overzealous South Vietnamese sentry had opened fire on their jeep. The startled sentry’s bullets had narrowly missed both men, as they travelled from the airfield to the headquarters. Despite the exhaustive early morning discussion, the actual written order received by General Ngo was a single sentence,

‘To Commander I Corps, take all action as necessary to meet and defeat the enemy’s forces, while safeguarding your own disposition.’

Its brevity and unclear intention were by design and not omission. After the failure of several operations, the JGS suspected that they had been penetrated by a Communist spy ring. Consequently, the Central Intelligence Organisation established a taskforce to identify the spy within their ranks. Therefore, the order was left deliberately ambiguous to provide a small fig leaf of cover for the operation.

The withdrawal was named Operation 'Khan Hoa,' after the province where I Corps would arrive. Its name also formed part of a disinformation campaign, which involved leaked plans showing the Marine division advancing along Route One through Khan Hao, and then launching a counter offensive to retake Pleiku and Kontum. Surprisingly, the disinformation campaign worked and diverted the enemy’s attention away from I Corps towards the Central Highlands.

Leading the PAVN forces was Dai Tai (Brigadier General) Le Trong Tan, who had been referred to as the ‘Vietnamese Zhukov’ by General Nguyen van Giap. General Le’s brigade had captured General Castries at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, and since that time had led his forces to a string of victories. His forces included the 2nd, 304th, 324B, 325C and 711th Infantry Divisions supported by three sapper regiments, three armoured regiments, twelve anti-aircraft and eight artillery regiments. Indeed, Brigadier General Le outnumbered his South Vietnamese counterpart Ngo’s forces by at least four to one. A breakout confined the retreating ARVN forces to a single line of movement and exposed their flank to potential counter attack, a fate that the 3rd Division had experienced during the Easter Offensive.

General Ngo was faced with a tremendously difficult problem, how to coordinate the breakout of 30,000 soldiers dispersed over five provinces, and to fight through several enemy formations to reach the ‘safety’ of Khan Hoa province. Who was the man that South Vietnam unambiguously looked to now? General Norman Schwarzkopf’s biography described General Ngo as:

"He did not look like my idea of a military genius: only five feet seven … very skinny, with hunched shoulders and a head that seemed too big for his body … His face was pinched and intense … and there was always a cigarette hanging from his lips. Yet he was revered by his officers and troops—and feared by those North Vietnamese commanders who knew of his ability. Trưởng was the most brilliant tactical commander I'd ever known" and that "by visualizing the terrain and drawing on his experience fighting the enemy for fifteen years, Truong showed an uncanny ability to predict what they were going to do".

The three divisional commanders were summoned to I Corps Headquarters and, Operation Khan Hoa was refined by the five men. Ngo’s force would cross three major rivers, while withdrawing in good order to prevent a withdrawal from turning into a rout. If I Corps successfully disengaged from the pursuing Communists, then Operation Khan Hoa would rank alongside the breakout by the frostbitten United States Marines from the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.

The plan called for 3 Division to move south replacing 1 Division in their defensive positions around the Que Son valley and, outside the port town of Da Nang. 1 Division would then leapfrog 2 Division into Quang Tin and Quang Ngai provinces, arriving in Binh Dinh the northernmost province of II Corps. Within Binh Dinh province lay the port city of Qui Nhon, which was where Route 19 reached the coastline and, potentially PAVN forces from the Central Highlands could block their retreat.

3 Division would replace 2 Div in their new defensive positions, while 2 Div travelled through Binh Dinh province and into Phu Yen province. 1 Division would then move into Khanh Hao province, where Route 21 reached the coastline and, I Corps escape would be a fait accompli. From this location, I Corps could reinforce General Le’s 18th Division at the M’Drak Pass and potentially stabilise the Central Highlands defensive line.

By only allowing one division to move at a time, enabled I Corps to maintain a strong defensive foot print, thereby improving the success of a fighting withdrawal. The meeting concluded at five p.m. in the afternoon, with the Operation was scheduled to commence the following morning at three a.m. The cult of secrecy surrounding the withdrawal, is best encapsulated by the fact that the local VNAF commander was only informed of the Operation at 10 p.m. The problem as with all plans would lay in its execution and the actions of their enemy.

It is strange that the name synonymous with Operation Khan Hoa in most history text books, is not Lieutenant General Ngô Quang Trưởng, but rather his subordinate Brigadier General Do Cao Tri. Do had attained widespread fame within the country, following his success during the Cambodian incursion. However, politically motivated charges of corruption were brought against him by Vice President Ky due to his lavish lifestyle, and he was found guilty. The Court Martial demoted Do a single grade to Brigadier General, and posted him to Australia as the embassy’s military attaché in 1970. However, the desperate need for competent military officers during the Easter Offensive in 1972, expedited his political rehabilitation. However, his rehabilitation was still reliant upon recommendations from several senior officers and President Minh to compel Vice President Ky to relent. The incoming I Corps Commander General Ngo requested General Do act as his Deputy Corps Commander, where he ‘temporarily’ assumed command of 3 Div. Indeed, there appears to have been an understanding, that Do would once more be in line to command a Corps following this posting. The US Army advisers that accompanied him on operations in 1970 during the Cambodian incursion, and again during the Easter Offensive were impressed with his emphasis on speed of movement combined with controlled aggression. These unique attributes led to him being referred to as the Vietnamese Patton by his advisers, a comparison he seemingly cultivated with the purchase of an ivory handled pistol.

3rd Division – invincible or merely well led soldiers

3 Div was the latest ARVN division being raised mid-way through 1971, concurrent with the American withdrawal from South Vietnam. It comprised the 2nd, 56th & 57th Infantry regiments and the 11th Armoured Cavalry. The 2nd Infantry Regiment had been transferred from the 1st Division at inception, so as 'to add some starch to the new Division.' Considering the other two regiments were comprised of former deserters and malingerers, the starch was sorely needed. Despite its brief existence, 3 Div had fought well during the Easter Offensive exceeding the meagre expectations that had been set during the initial onslaught. Belatedly ordered to withdraw along Route One, despite clear intelligence advising that the PAVN were attempting to encircle the division, resulted in the Div suffering heavy casualties during the withdrawal. In the byzantine world of South Vietnamese politics, the previous Divisional Commander had been made a scapegoat for the defeat and relieved of his command, despite being placed in a seemingly impossible situation.

This was the division that General Tri had inherited in 1973, one that was under strength, under equipped and lacking in confidence. He responded to the dire situation with both drive and determination. Do rebuilt the division from the ground up by concentrating on basic soldiering skills and junior leadership from the section level upwards. Small operations were conducted to rebuild the Division’s shattered confidence, which culminated in the destruction of a PAVN Battalion at the start of 1974. An aggressive attitude combined with new found resilience permeated the Division, two attributes needed for Operation Khanh Hoa.

Operation Khanh Hoa began at three a.m. on Monday 6 January 1975 with soldiers from the 2nd Infantry Regiment slowly pulling back from their foxholes to mount the waiting trucks in. As they departed the ARVN soldiers saw the ruins of the Quang Tri citadel, which had been destroyed by the PAVN forces during the Easter Offensive. Masking their withdrawal were two VNAF AC – 119 G Shadow Gunships flying overhead, the roar of their twin Wright Cyclone engines echoed throughout the valley. Tracers erupted from their four G.E. MXU-470 miniguns, as the Shadows commenced attacking the Communists. Once the first run was completed, the first Shadow took up station in front of the convoy’s lead elements as it travelled down Route One, circling like a guardian angel ready to strike.

Most of the South Vietnamese soldiers sat in silence as they rode south on the rough pinewood seats, seemingly content to gaze at the shadowy outline of the passing countryside. The trucks extinguished their headlights to avoid being easily targeted by enemy fire, which made safely driving in convoy far harder and, their brakes were tested several times during the early morning darkness.

The spearhead of the convoy was the 11th Armoured Cavalry mounted in M – 113 Armoured Personnel Carriers and, a Company of M – 41 light tanks. The PAVN forces that they initially encountered, had not expected to be attacked at night by a mechanised force and were quickly brushed aside by the ARVN convoy. Like a creature of the night, the Shadow gunship returned to Da Nang at sunrise, replaced by a flight of A – 37 Dragonflies that slowly orbited over the convoy.

As dawn broke, the column reached the outskirts of the former Imperial City of Hue, but did not drive directly through the city. Instead, they followed a bypass road to the west of Hue, passing the stone tombs of Emperor Khai Dinh, Gia Long and Menh Minh. General Do was criticised for his decision to bypass Hue, thereby condemning the inhabitants to Communist occupation. However, any movement directly through the city, would have been reported via the network of Communist informers that plagued each city. If this occurred the enemy mobile formations could have blocked Route One, encircling his formation and dooming their breakout. Ultimately, the convoy roared passed the city, consigning the citizens of Hue to communist rule.

The column met its first PAVN force outside of Phu Loc, a town located on the southern shore of the Cau Hai Gulf. The lead elements came under heavy attack from several entrenched positions adjacent to Route One. VNAF A – 37s attacked the PAVN fortifications, while the 105mm guns of the 30th Artillery Battalion were unlimbered. The swooping A – 37s came under small arms fire, as several SA 7s streaked into the sky, sending a single A – 37 crashing to the ground. After the A – 37 flight cleared the air space, an artillery barrage pounded the PAVN position, while the South Vietnamese tanks and APCs waited at the start line.

A VNAF UH – 1 helicopter landed in a small clearing, while an angry one-star general wearing a tiger striped camouflage, baseball cap and sunglasses dashed forward yelling at the lead tank. The tank commander gathered his wits, thumped his driver on the shoulder, and the attack roared forward. After the battle, the tank commander recounted that General Tri had screamed ‘Go fast, man! Go fast.’ With the impromptu motivation, 3 Div’s armoured spear point smashed a hole through the PAVN position, which the remainder of the column drove through.

At 10:15 a.m. the soldiers of the Third Division reached the first objective the town of Ting Son, which was just south of Da Nang. The soldiers flopped into their positions as their officers organised their perimeter, while non-commissioned officers 'acquired' any food or ammunition they could locate. From their foxholes, most soldiers saw Son Cha Island and the lighthouse on the north of the Son Tra Peninsula. Da Nang harbour itself was unbelievably crowded as the Navy and several civilian vessels conducted an evacuation. The 1st Ranger Group ascended the hills surrounding Da Nang, establishing a network of observation points to watch the multiple trails that criss crossed the country side.

To the east, a flight of A-37s launched from Da Nang Air Field attacking a PAVN position to the north, but this was nothing in comparison to the apparently constant stream of aircraft flying south. Unbeknownst to the men of the 3rd Division, several transport aircraft had landed at Da Nang loaded with the fuel, arms and food needed for their journey southwards. Once unloaded the supply aircraft were loaded with the ground crew and any other RVNAF members.

As the 3 Div waited for the VNAF evacuation from Da Nang to be completed, the advancing PAVN forces reached the outskirts of the city. Two PAVN regiments attacked the 56th Infantry Regiment outside of Hoa Vang, but were successfully driven off by the 56th. During the night, the PAVN force conducted probing attacks across the entire Divisional position searching for a weak point, as Communist artillery and armoured forces were brought up to Da Nang.

The evacuation continued throughout the night with the final two C – 123 Providers departing Da Nang airfield at 8:55 a.m. At 9:10 a.m. two VNAF F – 5Es flew over the base, dropping a mixed load of Mk 82s and Napalm destroying the airfield's ammunition and fuel bunker. The departure of the F – 5Es, left the men of the 3 Div feeling alone, as there was now no available air cover.

Originally, the order of march called for the 3 Div to wait, until 1 Div had reached their objective prior to continuing south. Practicalities on the ground soon rendered the original plan useless. General Tri realised that the opening created by 1 Div would be closed by PAVN forces rushing towards them. Therefore, he decided that once the Da Nang Air Field evacuation was complete, 3 Div would resume their march southwards along Route One.

Once again, the soldiers of 3 Div moved southwards, but with the enemy snapping at their heels. 11 Cav launched a slashing attack on the PAVN forces to their north, wreaking havoc as they inadvertently crashed into the staging area for a planned attack. Covering their withdrawal were two ships from the Vietnamese Navy RVNS Tran Quang Kahi (HQ 2) and RVNS Tran Quoc Toan (HQ 6). Both ships completed a race track pattern within Da Nang Harbour, as their 5 inch shells added to the chaos caused by the 11 Cav’s attack.

Once the sun set an AC 119 G Shadow resumed its night time vigil over the column, flying from Chu Lai airfield. The remaining VNAF aircraft at Chu Lai flew missions supporting 1 Div, leaving a single Shadow for the rearguard. 3 Div passed the town of Ha Lam, its distinctive Cham architecture that made the area famous. Champa had once occupied vast swathes of Central Vietnam and Cambodia, but had been destroyed by their forefathers as they moved ever southwards. Some within the convoy bleakly wondered, was South Vietnam destined for the same fate?

The convoy arrived in Nui Thanh, passing the former American base at Chu Lai. The airfield was operated with a skeleton staff and, VNAF transport aircraft waited on the tarmac with their much-needed supplies. Supply parties moved throughout the Division distributing food and ammunition, while the tired soldiers from 3 Div filed into the recently vacated fortifications. Soldiers from 2 Div mounted the trucks waiting on the dirt road, eager to start their own journey southwards to link up with 1 Div.

The superb resupply effort was due to the efforts of John Paul Vann, without whom it is highly doubtful that the break out would have succeeded. In his 1990 biography Vann explained his role below,

“Basically, I proceeded to unf#ck their logistical tail and I might add was ably assisted in this regard by several other volunteers.”

Vann’s description should in no way understate his efforts as they ensured that four ARVN divisions could function, a task that many others had ascribed as being nigh on impossible.

HQ 2 and 6 rode at anchor in Chu Lai harbour their respective ships' companies, including one Royal Australian Naval Officer on exchange, watched the evacuation of another air field. Ashore soldiers did what they always have done passing around cigarettes, refilling ammunition magazines, eating a hot meal and if possible snatching some much-needed sleep, before the order came to move out.

Again, the convoy rolled southwards over the Tra Bong bridge secured by a Ranger company. The Rangers watched their peers race over the bridge, which was rigged with explosives. Unfortunately, the engineer detachment, who for some unknown reason, destroyed the bridge with the Rangers still on the other side. Utilising the initiative that had made them Rangers, they forded the river with their rifles held above their head and, started a broken-down truck on the southern river bank. Eventually, the Rangers re-joined the convoy, as it travelled southwards towards Quang Ngai province and into II Corps.

3 Div passed through the town of Quang Ngai and were joined by streams of refugees who followed the army southwards. Quang Ngai had also become infamous due to the actions of Lieutenant Calley and Charlie Company at My Lai in March 1968. Because of this incident, most ARVN soldiers viewed the province, as sympathetic towards the Communists. Soldiers gripped their Armalite rifles, watching as the bustle of the city gave way to rice paddy fields tended by farmers behind water buffalos, while another flight of A – 37 Dragonflies orbited above the convoy. Sadly, the presence of friendly air cover was only temporary, as the Dragonflies returned southwards to support 1 Div just outside of Tuy Phuo. Tuy Phuo sat astride Route 19 leading directly to Pleiku in the Central Highlands and the seaside town of Quy Nhon. Accordingly, Tuy Phuo was a critical part of the withdrawal and it was here that 3 Div laagered up. Soldiers from the 23rd Infantry Division that had broken at Pleiku, flooded into the town with Vietnamese refugees fleeing the Communist advance.

It was also here that the men of the 3rd Division ran into the PAVN 52nd Division as it attempted to reach the town before them. General Tri aggressive as always, drove his soldiers as fast as they would go. General Truong realising that the advance needed to draw off a greater number of PAVN soldiers, ordered the 3rd Division to remain at the town.

The guns were once again unlimbered, while tired soldiers swung their entrenching tools into the earth carving out shell scrapes. C-123 Providers roared overhead dropping supplies via parachute to the 3rd Division rather than landing, while the waiting soldiers below watched the cargo pallets drift to the ground behind the rubble.

PAVN forces attacked 3 Div from the West, a probing attack was beaten off by the dug in forces. Throughout the night, the western most ARVN position came under sporadic shelling from a PAVN artillery regiment. Again, a pair of VNAF Stinger gunships prowled the night sky, but they were attacked by a PAVN anti-aircraft regiment, destroying one and damaging the other. Their loss meant that 3 Division could no longer expect any further air support at night.

The PAVN deployed their tank regiment equipped with T – 54s to attack 3 Div’s position, while the South Vietnamese dispatched a M – 41 platoon to reinforce their rearguard. The next attack consisted of a preparatory barrage launched by the artillery regiment, followed by a combined armour and infantry assault. The Communists shattered the 56th regiment, but were defeated by the valiant efforts of the 2nd Infantry Regiment, supported by a platoon of M – 41 tanks.

For General Do after seventy-two hours in the city, he realised that he needed to break out, before 3 Div was encircled. Do requested a VNAF air strike on the lead Communist elements, to create the necessary space to successfully disengage from the enemy. However, Do knew that the volume of ground fire and presence of shoulder launched surface to air missiles, meant that any air strike was liable for a hot reception.

Dai Tai Le Trong Tan relentlessly drove his subordinates towards an objective, and reflecting his aggressive personality, his headquarters was located near the North Vietnamese forward elements. This provided an opportunity for the South Vietnamese to attempt a decapitation strike against his Headquarters, which was located in a clump of trees just north of Tuy Phuo.

Ten F-5E Tigers from the elite 522nd Tactical Fighter Squadron were allocated to the strike, divided into three strike elements supported by a CIA EC – 47. Leading the flak suppression element, was an Imperial Iranian Air Force 'adviser' Lieutenant Jalil Zandi, who effortlessly destroyed the anti-aircraft guns that ringed the headquarters.

The strike element was led by Major Nguyen Quoc Hung, whom dropped his Mk 82 snake eyes on the Headquarters. Captain Dam Thuong "Tall Man" Vu led the final strike element, adding his bombs to the inferno below.

The sandbagged headquarters was destroyed in a pillar of smoke, but the primary target was absent. Dai Tai Tan’s aggressive attitude had once more saved him, as he was overlooking the 3rd Division’s position, as the South Vietnamese jets streaked overhead towards his headquarters. Although the strike was unsuccessful, it had sufficiently disrupted the Communist advance, creating a window for 3 Div to withdraw.

The far smaller Third division continued down Route One, with the soldiers advanced dismounted ready to fight, until they reached the city of Tuy Hoa and stopped. Miraculously I Corps had escaped.

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 26, 2017 12:13 am 

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Map of Cambodia


Military Regions of Cambodia


1975 Spring Offensive in I Corps


"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Sat Sep 30, 2017 1:15 am 
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Good to see this fine work posted here. Nice job!

Treat everyone you meet with kindness and respect. But always have a plan to kill them.

Old USMC Adage

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PostPosted: Fri Oct 13, 2017 9:39 pm 

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Really nice work. Looking forward to more.

Adrian Carton de Wiart, VC wrote:
Frankly I had enjoyed the war...and why do people want peace if the war is so much fun?

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PostPosted: Sat Oct 14, 2017 4:13 am 

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Thanks for the compliments Gentlemen, however the TL is on pause at the moment due to work and study. But both of those roadblocks will clear up in the next couple of weeks.

Although, the final four chapters have been written, I have modified my direction ever so slightly to accommodate a different Corps Commander.

Plus the eternal urge to continuously refine your work.

On another note, once I've wrapped up this TL, I will finally get around to writing my Red Dawn story, that I have been discussing with Matt Wiser for some time :D .

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 26, 2017 5:06 am 

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Chapter Twelve: False Dawn

The escape of the battered ARVN I Corps, left the North Vietnamese in a quandary. While the battlefield success of the People’s Army, had allowed the North Vietnamese state to incorporate all of I Corps and most of II Corps. South Vietnam’s new borders were far more defensible than their previous boundaries. In November 1975, the PAVN General Staff met to plan the follow-on operation to Campaign 2 – 75. The attendees quickly discarded the obvious option of attacking along the narrow confines of Route One, which hugged the coastline. A full-frontal attack meant a battle of attrition, which would further diminish their manpower reserves. Therefore, the Communist Mandarins considered another option, drawing inspiration from ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, namely “avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”

On the second day discussion turned to another proposal, namely to conduct a flanking attack through Eastern Cambodia, enabling the North Vietnamese column to avoid the entrenched South Vietnamese defenders. After two days of discussions, the General Staff unanimously agreed to the plan, despite a potentially critical flaw. The sweeping red lines that crashed into the unguarded western border of South Vietnam on the map, were dependent on the non-involvement of the small Cambodian Army. This could be achieved via two means, by diplomacy or by military means.

Displaying a pragmatism that had long been a hallmark of their planning PAVN soldiers began covertly assembling within the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea concurrent with the diplomatic efforts in Phnom Penh. This allowed the PAVN Commander the ability to strike quickly towards South Vietnam regardless of the diplomatic outcome. Although the Vietnamese Politburo was optimistic that their diplomatic efforts would sway the Cambodians, their General Staff held a more realistic world view. Their considered opinion was that the diplomatic efforts were likely to be fruitless and they planned accordingly.

Phnom Penh was to South East Asia, as Vienna was to Europe, namely a venue for the two rival superpowers, or their proxies, to conduct quiet diplomacy. Indeed, the negotiations for President Nixon’s visit to China had started in Cambodia.  Accordingly, diplomatic overtures were extended from the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, via third parties, to discuss if Cambodia would grant free passage to PAVN units. Neither government has formally disclosed the exact details of the offer, or that negotiations even occurred, but the concessions offered to Cambodia were allegedly quite generous. The offer was firmly rebuked by the Cambodian government and, the North Vietnamese considered another option.

The rebuke acted as a key plank in the North Vietnamese misinformation campaign, ostensibly the offensive’s primary objective was to achieve a regime change or, to compel the Cambodians to accept the reestablishment of PAVN sanctuaries within their territory. Regardless, the effect of any military action would be that the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea would extend their killing fields across more of Cambodia.

The PAVN General Staff were quietly confident at the prospects of success for Operation Ba Trieu, as the combined PAVN / KRA force outnumbered the Cambodians by a factor of three to one. Additionally, the PAVN General Staff studied Operation Suryarvarmann II to determine the primary factors that had contributed to the successful campaign, their conclusion was that success was ultimately been contingent upon the availability of all-weather American air support, which was unlikely to occur under President Ford. While, the AVRK had acquired a limited all-weather strike capability with the acquisition of eight A – 4 C Skyhawk, fundamentally the Cambodian fast jet element were too few to be able to stop a Vietnamese attack by airpower alone. Consequently, a small well-trained army without access to American air support, was unlikely to stop an overwhelming PAVN attack.

To minimise the chance of ARVN redeploying their forces to support their Cambodian allies, Communist agents disseminated rumours of an impending military offensive along Route One. These reports were supported by small raids conducted by independent PAVN formations and, fake radio activity was conducted to misdirect South Vietnamese signals intelligence. Consequently, the South Vietnamese JGS moved their strategic reserve just south of II Corps, to potentially block an advance that would never come.

Operation Ba Trieu involved two PAVN Army Corps advancing from Mondulkiri province in the Cambodian North East through Kratie and Prey Veng provinces, before striking into South Vietnam. PAVN Intelligence expected that the Cambodians, in accordance with their doctrine, would withdraw to construct defensive positions in and around the capital. The KRA would drive towards the Cambodians, while the PAVN Corps manoeuvred to the south east into Svay Rieng province and then onwards to Saigon. 

Unware of the subterfuge committed by their erstwhile allies, the DRK leadership were ecstatic at the thought of liberating Cambodia from the feudal regime and, drew up a list of class enemies. A rather grim fact, is that the executions at S – 21 were increased, to provide sufficient space for the expected new prisoners.

Son Sen or Brother Number Four, as he was known within the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, was the Defence Minister and the commander of the Kampuchean Revolutionary Army (“KRA”). In the late 1960s Son had lead the embryonic KRA through several campaigns, and was instrumental in creating the base of operations located in the far north east of Cambodia. Their erstwhile North Vietnamese allies noted that their contribution, by fighting over ninety percent of the Cambodian Army, to forming the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea was conveniently ignored. Son Sen was deposed in 1971, following unsubstantiated allegations of spying for the North Vietnamese, only avoiding execution due to the Vietnamese threat to cease their economic lifeline to the DRK. Following the disastrous performance of the KRA during Operation Suryarvarman II in 1972, Son was politically rehabilitated and, formed a capable conventional army based around two light infantry divisions.

Surprisingly, Son Sen as the most capable and experienced KRA officer, did not command the KRA military during the 1976 offensive. Several captured Politburo documents stated that Son Sen was far too senior to exercise command in the field, and would serve the DRK better by remaining in the capital. However, rumours abounded that Son Sen was denied command due to questions over his relationship with the Vietnamese and, his popularity with the KRA soldiers. The inner KRA cabal had question over Brother Number Four’s reliability, that he could succumb to Napoleonic tendencies and overthrow the Politburo. Apparently, Son Sen was marked for death, once the country was formally united under Communist rule.

Instead the KRA force were led by Ta Mok or the Butcher, a name that was only whispered in the shadows by his peers. Ta Mok earned that gruesome title during his time with the Santebal, the dreaded DRK secret police, due to his brutal interrogations of counter revolutionaries.  Following Operation Suryarvarmann II, the KRA transitioned from a guerrilla force to a conventional force. Ta Mok along with Son Sen completed the Command and Staff College course at the People’s Liberation Army War College in 1973. Although the excesses of the Cultural Revolution had lessened compared to their zenith in the mid-1960s, the syllabus focused on ideological purity over military science. Although, Son Sen found it difficult to associate with his Chinese peers, apparently Ta Mok developed a strong relationship with the more radical Communist Chinese.

After returning to the DRK, Ta Mok commanded the Santebal Regiment, the DRK’s Praetorian Guard, achieving localised success against the increasingly capable Cambodian Army. Ta Mok’s appointment reflected the desire within the DRK, to improve their relationship with the People’s Republic of China, as a counter balance to a potentially united Communist Vietnam.

The two KRA divisions that Ta Mok commanded were almost exclusively a ‘light infantry’ force equipped with AK 47 assault rifles, RPD light machine guns, RPG launchers, recoilless rifles and anti-personnel mines. They wore dark green Chinese fatigues and soft 'Mao caps,' in contrast to the comparatively lavishly equipped Santebal regiment that he had previously commanded. Consequently, the pace of any KRA advance was far slower than their PAVN counterparts.

Prior to the offensive, Ta Mok transported 1 Div in Soviet Ural – 375 trucks speeding up their advance, while 2 Div trailed behind on foot. Both Divisions were supported by two D – 30 artillery regiments, a single armoured regiment equipped with Type 58 tanks, a single anti-aircraft battalion armed with ZSU 57 SPAAGs and, SA 7s at the Company level. The bulk of the armoured regiment remained in the capital, to prevent any counter revolutionary elements from potentially overthrowing their murderous reign.

Joint intelligence operations were launched by the KRA and PAVN to reconnoitre the proposed routes of advance. Fords, potential staging areas, shelters, the maximum number of soldiers that could be billeted within a village were duly marked and, reported to their respective Staffs. Their surveys were so detailed, that they formed the basis of the updated Cambodian maps in 1990.

Dubbed the ‘Autumn Offensive’ by the KRA and ‘Ba Trieu’ by the Vietnamese. The KRA intended to pocket the Cambodian 3 Division and, to secure Stung Treng. Thereby, preventing the Cambodian Army from launching another offensive into the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea, like Operation Suryarvarman II in 1972. The offensive was planned with the utmost of secrecy, with minimal radio traffic and troop movements occurred under the cover of darkness. September was chosen as the heavy rainfall would shield the troop movements from aerial reconnaissance and, negate FARK air superiority. The KRA achieved total surprise on Tuesday, 21 September 1976, attacked a weakly defended section of the Cambodian line, taking advantage of the heavy rainfall that grounded FARK.

The Cambodians were aware of the increased activity occurring within their borders, primarily due to a combined Cambodian / Thai SIGINT facility located just south of the Laotian border. Based on their signals interception, it became clear that the PAVN intended to strike Cambodia and not South Vietnam. Sadly, for the men of the Hill their role could not be disclosed until 1991, as its existence remained a closely guarded secret until the end of the Cold War. Despite these reports, I Corps Staff deemed it unlikely that an attack would occur prior to the end of the wet season in late October.

Notwithstanding, General Chae undertook several preparatory steps such as concentrating 3 Division led by Brigadier General Um Savuth at Kratie, while 1 Division led by Brigadier General Kong Neang moved westwards across the Mekong river to their logistical hub at Stung Treng, while the newly raised 7 Division led by Brigadier General Khy Hak remained at Kampong Thom as his reserve force. The Strategic Reserve was placed on alert, soldiers were recalled from leave, while the Cambodian military prepared for an October assault.

Despite concentrating the 3rd Division at Kratie, the Division barely avoided being shattered by the overwhelming Communist attack and, retreated to the south west in good order. Belatedly, 1 Division withdrew from Stung Treng to Kampong Thom to avoid encirclement. Most of the civilian population accompanied the retreating Army as it trekked south, as they were acutely aware of the fate awaiting them under Communist rule. Within thirty-six hours of launching Operation Ba Trieu, the Cambodian military was in full retreat before the combined PAVN / Khmer Rouge onslaught.

The ‘fighting’ Cambodian 3 Div, as they were dubbed in the Phnom Post, commenced a fighting withdrawal westward, pausing only to launch several spoiling attacks that frustrated their KRA pursuers. Their tactic of trading space for time went awry at Khna, as the fleeing Cambodian refugees blocked 3 Div’s retreat. The Division Commander Brigadier General Um Savuth ordered 3 Div to dig in east of Khna, while the Division waited for the road to clear. 3 Div’s manoeuvre element, the 15th Motorised Brigade supported by the 4th M –113 Squadron successfully conducted another spoiling attack. The remaining two light infantry brigades from 3 Div prepared their fighting positions.

The relatively unscathed 47th Brigade constructed defensive fortifications astride the east - west road into Khna, under the assumption that the KRA would not attempt a flanking attack. Meanwhile the northern flank was guarded by the 51st Brigade, which had been reduced to a fighting strength of one and a half battalions. The pause allowed the 51st Brigade time to reorganise and reinforce their battalions.  The guns of the 3rd Artillery Regiment were hidden beneath camouflage netting, as their 105 mm howitzers were dialled in. The logisticians used the delay to resupply 3 Div with ammunition and men, to replace those lost during the fighting. Late that night, the 15th Motorised Brigade moved to the west of Khna, where they sat in reserve.

The vanguard of KRA 1 Div continued their relentless pursuit of 3 Div, reaching the outskirts of Khna unscathed. Cautiously, the KRA Scout Battalion soldiers moved towards the town, bounding from cover to cover. The building’s shadows lengthened in the late afternoon, while an eerie quiet permeated the town. A single rifle shot echoed through the streets, followed by rapid rifle shots from several concealed defensive positions, that immediately halted the KRA advance. Having identified the location of the Cambodian defenders, the surviving Scouts retreated to the bulk of 1 Div. Both artillery regiments were brought up towards the front, and began to bombard 3 Div. 2 Div (KRA) launched a human wave attack against the front of the 47th Infantry Brigade. As the KRA soldiers crossed the open ground, they were fired upon by the 105mm guns of the 3rd Field Artillery Group, scything the attacking soldiers like wheat. Sporadic attacks continued to be launched by small groups of soldiers, ultimately these pin prick attacks did not threaten the line of the 47th Infantry Brigade.

Concurrent with the attack on the 47th Brigade, the KRA launched a flanking attack on 3 Div’s northern flank. Their choice of target was inspired, as the 51st Light Infantry Brigade had sustained heavy losses and were in the process of being reorganised when they were attacked. The 51st Light Infantry Brigade did not have the manpower to adequately defend the northern perimeter, while the KRA teemed through the porous holes in the perimeter. Brigadier General Um Savuth deployed his Divisional reserve, the motorised 15th Infantry Brigade supported by the 4th M-113 Squadron, to reinforce the beleaguered 51st Infantry Brigade. Although the 15th Infantry Brigade stopped the flanking attack, the northern perimeter noticeably contracted.

Most close air support missions were flown by A – 37 Dragonflies from 106 Squadron, effectively operating under the control of a Forward Air Controller in an O - 2. With the presence of almost continuous friendly air cover and artillery support, 3 Div doggedly held its position for the remainder of the day. Furthermore, the Gendarme established order on the road westwards, allowing 3 Div to resume their withdrawal. Using the night as camouflage, the remaining elements of 3 Div quietly slipped away westwards, with the 51st Light Infantry Brigade leading the Division, followed by the 47th Infantry Brigade, with the motorised 15th Brigade acting as the rearguard.

Having battered the Cambodian 3 Div into retreating westwards, Ta Mok could have ceased his pursuit. However, he believed that 3 Div could be destroyed and, another Cambodian Division mauled. If this occurred, the loss would reduce the Cambodian military’s numerical advantage to parity with the KRA for at least two years and, allow the KRA to assume the offensive in the following year. The critical assumption was that this chain of events could occur, before the Naga Division, the vaunted Cambodian Strategic Reserve, could be deployed to the battlefield. However, that assumption ignored the acquisition of several key pieces of infrastructure by the Cambodian government in recent years.

Until 1970, the largest manoeuvre unit employed by the Cambodian Army was a Brigade and, the first Division sized operation occurred in 1972. While, the Cambodian Army had successfully employed a Division during Operation Suryarvarman II, the 1972 Easter Offensive in South Vietnam had involved multiple Divisions on either side. Consequently, a Corps Headquarters was formed in 1973 to co-ordinate 1,3 and 7 Division in Military Region One, but the Cambodians were unable to completely man the new Corps Headquarters, due to staff shortages from doubling their military in less than a decade.

Initially, the Cambodians requested that General Vessey temporarily assume control of the new formation, but the Americans rejected their request. However, President Park was sympathetic to their plight and dispatched the recently retired General Chae with a small staff to Cambodia. General Chae had commanded the South Korean contingent in South Vietnam and, was renowned for his military competency, as well as his staunch anti-communist beliefs. This command was intended to be an interim function, to allow the Cambodian Army time for their Officers to gain the breadth of experience required in a Corps level command.

General Chae had only been able to conduct staff exercises with his constituent units, due to the high price of fuel, although he had been able to second one Brigade to join the Naga Division during their annual manoeuvres. It was his staff that now confronted the problem posed by the KRA and, reflecting the aggressiveness of their Commander, formed a plan to destroy the isolated KRA force.

The Corps Headquarters and General Staff devised a plan to annihilate the invading KRA force, and movement orders set into motion. The essence of the plan was a double envelopment attack on Ta Mok’s northern and southern flanks. The southern column comprised the 2nd Mechanised Infantry Brigade, the 3rd Motorised Infantry Brigade and the 1st Royal Tank Regiment. The Northern column consisted of the motorised 1st Infantry Brigade, the 3rd M – 113 'Buffalo' Squadron and the 2nd Armoured Regiment. The stratagem relied upon the KRA forces committing their entire strength against 3 Div, thereby creating the time needed for the Cambodian manoeuvre units to move into position, however the time was measured not in minutes, but rather the lives of 3 Div soldiers.

As 3 Div disengaged from the KRA, they withdrew to Krong Suong rather than Srae Seam. Allegedly, Brigadier General Um Savuth broke a trestle table with his fist, when informed that his division was to withdraw to Krong Suong instead of Srae Seam. By all accounts this outburst reflected an assumption that his soldiers were being deliberately worn down without any thought given to the precariousness of their situation. This eruption from a very controlled officer, reflected the tremendous strain that he had placed under over the previous fortnight.

After snatching a few hours’ sleep as his staff organised the withdrawal, Um grasped General Chae Myung-Shin’s intent. 3 Div were being used to lure the entire KRA into the open, where the Cambodian Army could finally destroy them. Indeed, Brigadier General Um Savuth was not the only senior officer to discern Lieutenant General Chae’s plan, after the battle several KRA prisoners advised their Cambodian captors that several PAVN liaison officers counselled Ta Mok not to pursue the retreating 3 Div. This prudent advice was ignored by Ta Mok, as he closely followed the fleeing enemy. 

The KRA reached the outskirts of Krong Suong and sent the Scout Battalion forward to identify 3 Div’s fighting positions. Although Ta Mok recognised that the opportunity to destroy 3 Div was rapidly closing, but remained resolutely determined to do so. 

Just after sunrise 1 Div (KRA) and 2 Div (KRA) attacked the eastern perimeter of 3 Div penetrating their perimeter in several spots. 3 Div supported by continuous defensive fire missions from the 3rd and 7th Field Artillery, decimated the attackers. The effective artillery support, was followed by regular close air support missions flown by ARVK A – 37s Dragonflies and A –4s Skyhawks. By the end of the day, 3 Div had successfully defended their position. During the night, intermittent skirmishes occurred between 3 Div and the KRA, as KRA sappers marked out assault lanes for the morning attack. Two ARVK AC – 47 Spooky gunships were shot down by the KRA ZSU – 57s and, their burning wreckage cast an eerie light over the fighting.

Throughout the night, the two Cambodian striking arms moved into their starting positions, ready to attack the exposed KRA flanks in the morning. However, the KRA launched an early morning attack on 3 Div’s eastern perimeter, capturing few isolated defensive positions, before being fought off in a savage counter attack. In the mid-morning, Ta Mok received confused reports that his army were under attack on both the Northern and Southern flanks from Cambodian soldiers. He discarded the reports ascribing them to the confusion of battle and, to the inexperience of his forces. Ta Mok took comfort in that the latest intelligence reports issued by Santebal, that placed the nearest Cambodian manoeuvre forces behind the Mekong river and, were assessed as unlikely to intervene within forty-eight hours. However, Santebal neglected two critical pieces of information that would have changed their assessment, firstly the Cambodian investment in infrastructure, and secondly their purchase of bridging equipment, meant that the Cambodians could rapidly redeploy their forces.

The Cambodians had undergone an arduous trek moving primarily at night to avoid the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge intelligence networks.  Crossing the Mekong River was an arduous undertaking with the river in flood, but the Corps of Engineers proved equal to the task, erecting two Bailey bridges that were prepositioned on the western bank. Once the formation crossed the Mekong River, away from prying eyes, they moved during the day. By eight o’clock in the morning the heat was unbearable within the tanks and armoured personnel carriers; while the endless stream of vehicles threw up a thick brown coat that covered men and vehicle alike in a grimy film. Both columns reached their starting point on Saturday, 9 October 1976 and, the soldiers dug shell scrapes, before falling exhaustedly into their rifle pits.

Colonel Rouy drove to the furthest dugout in his camouflaged M113 Armoured Personnel Carrier, configured as a mobile command vehicle. The vehicle had been quietly dubbed ‘Ghost,’ due to Rouy’s ability to unexpectedly drop in on his subordinates. Emerging from Ghost’s boxy interior, Rouy surveyed the flat terrain. Up ahead lay the KRA force, which seemed strangely quiet. At 06:30 a.m. the KRA guns started firing at the beleaguered 3rd Division for half an hour. The bark of the 130 mm D – 30 guns was soon interrupted by the roar of jet engines, as a swarm of AVRK Skyhawks and Dragonflies emerged overhead. Like killer bees they darted across the KRA positions wreaking havoc, before returning home to rearm and return. At 08:30 a.m. the codeword Vajrapani was sent to both columns, ordering them to attack. The roar of diesel engines added to the cacophony of battle, as the steel beasts lurched forward.     

The two Cambodian mechanised and motorised columns crashed into the KRA flanks, decimating their light infantry formations, as the Cambodians surged relentlessly towards the KRA headquarters. The 1st Royal Tank Regiment’s Tiger tanks encountered their KRA counterparts equipped with Type 58 tanks, a Chinese derivative of the World War Two vintage T – 34 tanks, just north of the KRA headquarters. While, the KRA tankers displayed courage by attempting to close with the superior Tigers to inflict damage, they were outgunned and outfought by the 1st RTR. Within an hour, 1 RTR resumed its drive south leaving only smouldering wrecks in their wake. Heavy lashing rain and fierce thunderstorms added nature’s portion to the drama, further obscuring the battlefield.

Unthreatened by the meagre KRA anti-tank weapons, Cambodian Tiger and Dhole tanks crushed KRA weapons pits and gunners alike under their tracks. Bunkers and field guns were destroyed by tanks at almost point-blank range, as visibility reduced further in the torrential downpour. By mid-afternoon, pockets of KRA soldiers continued to doggedly defend their positions, their northern and south KRA flanks collapsed beneath the relentless FARK attack.  

The collapse of effective defence combined with the decreased visibility, nearly resulted in a friendly fire incident as the Tiger tanks of 1 RTR and, the Dhole tanks from the 2nd Armoured Regiment met in the KRA centre. When news of the sheer disaster that had engulfed his Army reached Ta Mok, he ordered his remaining forces to retreat. Realising the fate that waited for him, Ta Mok retired to his tent, placed his Tokarev pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. By sunset, the KRA was reduced to a single brigade in strength, that was comprised of several smaller disorganised units that hurriedly retreated eastwards.

The Air Force utilised the opportunity to whittle down the retreating enemy, attacking the fleeing soldiers with their A – 37 Dragonflies and their newly acquired UH – 1 H helicopter gunships. The speed of the KRA retreat meant that the Cambodians had trouble in maintaining a pursuit. Ultimately, the battle of Krong Suong was fatal for the Khmer Rouge, but in the interim it left the Cambodian Army free to attack the PAVN’s vulnerable supply chain.

Although the Cambodians realised that they were not the ultimate PAVN objective, the question arose what should they do? The North Vietnamese had repeatedly demonstrated that they would not respect the territorial integrity of Cambodia, while an independent South Vietnam preserved their long-term security. Consequently, the Cambodians attacked the North Vietnamese supply chain, focusing on their logistical hubs. Assisting the Cambodians were the Royal Thai “Black Panthers”, which included an infantry brigade, an armoured cavalry unit and three battalions of 105 mm howitzer equipped field artillery.

Pathfinder units in concert with the motorised and mechanised elements launched lightning like attacks on exposed logistical nodes. Units would attack a supply depot destroying supplies, and then withdraw. Improvised explosive devices were strewn across the logistical network and the destroyed supply depots, further hindering any resupply or reconstruction efforts. Accompanying, the Cambodians were several Western journalists, whose unfiltered accounts of the brave Cambodian resistance made the fighting an issue in the American Presidential campaign. Consequently, the Americans commenced an aerial resupply to replenish the near exhausted Cambodian war stocks.

The ARVK launched strikes on arms caches, assisting by the introduction of a makeshift FAST FAC. This meant that the four two seat A – 4B Skyhawks purchased to assist with fast jet conversions now became the Cambodian version of the famed USAF Misty.

The four two-seater TA – 4B Skyhawks operated in two pairs with one on station while the other refuelled and one crew flew almost 85 hours in a three-week period. Indeed, the FAST FAC pilots as a minimum were required to have flown 100 combat missions and have at least 1,000 hours in type, although most were far more experienced.  Major Meyer commented on their impact:

They soon proved their worth as one aircraft observed a truck and attacked the target blowing up the truck. He then rolled in on a second pass firing another rocket into the trees, which set off 28 large secondary explosions that blew the camouflage netting off a truck park and a SAM site revealing more targets to be destroyed.

Thiếu tướng (Major General) Nguyen Huu An was placed in a difficult situation, if he continued towards South Vietnam, his rear echelon would be relentlessly attacked by the Cambodians. While each delay imposed by the Cambodians, enabled the South Vietnamese to reinforce their outnumbered III Corps. His reconnaissance units had reported that the sky seemed to be filled with RVNAF transport aircraft. Aircraft that were presumably filled with troops and supplies, complimenting the road convoys accompanied by M – 48 Patton tanks. Any further delay meant that the potential war winning move would degenerate into the war of attrition, the same outcome that had prompted their original mission. 

Therefore, Nguyen made the fateful decision to stop his advance into South Vietnam, logically concluding that any attack was now unlikely to result in the decisive victory needed to collapse South Vietnam. However, perhaps he could salvage the situation if he destroyed the Cambodian Army, thereby establishing a safe logistical base to conduct a renewed offensive into South Vietnam. 

In the words of Napoleon Bonaparte, “This battle was lost, but there was time to win another.” The order was given and the PAVN force reversed their order of march, moving westwards to confront the Cambodians.

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 11, 2017 8:08 pm 

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Chapter Thirteen: Ils ne passeront pas

“You will kill ten of my men, and we will kill one of yours, and in the end, it will be you who will tire of it.” Ho Chi Minh

Once more the Cambodians faced the PAVN onslaught alone, as the Vietnamese retraced their steps from seven years earlier, sending their armies towards Kampong Cham. The Cambodian I Corps was now concentrated around Srae Seam. Most international observers contemptuously expected the Vietnamese to swat aside the Cambodian defenders and, to dictate terms to a prostrate Cambodian government. Cambodian civilians swarmed over the improvised fortifications, deepening, and strengthening every position. Their efforts transformed the improvised defensive fortifications into a 3-kilometre-long and 1.5-kilometre-wide system of trenches including large tank traps. This line was dubbed the Sisowath line after the Chief of the Defence Staff - General Sisowath Monireth.

Their panicked Cambodian calls of assistance to South Vietnam went unanswered, as the North Vietnamese strategy came to fruition. The covert diplomatic overtures extended by several Communist powers to the Cambodian cabinet, were released to the South Vietnamese press. Betrayal screamed banner headlines in 24-point font, while sombre news anchors spoke about the perfidious nature of Cambodia. Appeals to the Thai government were also met with stony indifference, while the Thais worked out their response. Although a Royal Thai Army liaison team was sent to Cambodia to identify the odds of Cambodian success, and if the existing military force should be kept in country.

An emergency meeting of the Cambodian General Staff was convened on Wednesday, 20 October 1976 to develop a strategy to defeat the Vietnamese, while I Corps Commander General Chae was flown directly from the field at tree top height in an UH – 1D. Intelligence discerned that the Vietnamese goal was to conduct a regime change, which meant that the Cambodians needed to slow the Vietnamese advance, in the vain hope that they would wear then down. General Chae outlined his plan to the General Staff, in the early hours of the morning, to conduct a series of rolling attacks disrupting the Vietnamese advance. Although a bold course of action, it offered the best chance of success, by using all five manoeuvre elements to rolling slashing attacks against the Vietnamese forces. Once each element had engaged the enemy, they would disengage under the cover of artillery fire or, a close air support mission flown by the ARVK.

These tactics reflected a high risk / high return mentality, that the Vietnamese invaders could be worn down by the rolling attacks, compelling them to either retreat or to be so weakened that the Cambodians could defeat the Vietnamese in a decisive battle. Regardless, like their French peers’ half a century earlier, the enemy could not pass if their country was to survive. The General Staff concurred with Chae’s recommendation, as it was the only option available to them, and released the Heavy Brigade to his command. The Cambodian Army and the nation at large, seemingly resembled a gambler that had gone all in at the poker table, on the belief that they had a better hand than the man opposite.

Due to the heavy casualties sustained by the 1st, 3rd and 7th Divisions during the recent battle against the KRA, they were reinforced from activated Reservists from the 9th Division. Ultimately, this left the 9th Division with a single unit, the 13th Motorised Brigade. The Brigade was commanded by Prince Norodom Chantaraingsay, and assigned to I Corps as their reserve force. The 13th Motorised Brigade was strengthened with several M – 19 SPAAGs, that had been placed in storage for a decade. Their inclusion was critical at the decisive battle at Srae Seam.

The organic firepower of I Corps was increased with the inclusion of the Fifth Artillery Group, who were equipped with M114 155mm Howitzers purchased from surplus US Army war stocks. As the regiment was a reserve unit, they were notionally allocated soldiers whom had completed their two-year period of national service. Within the Fifth Artillery Group, most of their reserve soldiers had not completed their conversion course from 105mm to 155mm Howitzers. The first diplomatic victory occurred when the Nationalist Chinese, upon hearing of the Cambodian inability to operate the M114 Howitzers, offered ‘volunteers’ from their Artillery Corps. The Taiwanese offer was promptly accepted by the Cambodians, and the Fifth Artillery Group with their 155mm guns were positioned near Srae Seam.

Concurrent with the military preparations, another meeting allegedly occurred with the Prime Minister In Tam accompanied by the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sisowath Monrieth, calling upon the Queen. The gravity of the situation was illustrated by the fact that the well-dressed Guardsman wearing white pith helmets, white tunics and black trousers with bolt action rifles and chrome plated magazines, no longer stood at parade rest in front of the yellow painted walls of the Royal Palace. Rather, the Guardsman now wore steel helmets with green fatigues, peering menacingly from the shadows of their sandbagged guard posts, with only the muzzles of their squad mounted machine guns visible.

Allegedly, the Prime Minister and General Monrieth implored her Majesty to evacuate westwards to Battambang City, due to the disparity in strength between the two sides. Her alleged reply was, “That the monarchy had shared and would continue to share the trials and tribulations experienced by her fellow Khmers. If her forces were beaten, she would share that and the consequences with her subjects.” No evidence has emerged into the public domain to confirm that the meeting occurred. However, documents released under a Freedom of Information request, reveals that the Government prepared a draft plan to evacuate the Government to Battambang, but then inexplicably remained at Phnom Penh. Regardless, of the accuracy of the meeting or the quote, the fact that the Royal Standard fluttered above the Royal Palace for the duration of the campaign remains a point of pride for all Cambodians, like the British Royal Family continuing to reside in Buckingham Palace during the Blitz.

In the morning, the Cambodian manoeuvre elements commenced their initial slashing attack against the Vietnamese advance. Most of the Cambodian soldiers realised the precariousness situation faced by their country, after all several newspaper articles had filtered through the ranks. Unnoticed, except by the keenest eyed international observers, a quiet determination to defeat the Vietnamese percolated throughout the Army. This was not a foreign field where they would fall far away from hearth and home, but outside their village in front of their families. If they failed, they and their families would have nowhere else to go.

The first attack launched by the Cambodian Army was led by the heavy brigade of the Strategic Reserve, the Communists identified the attacking force and, committed two brigades in an attempt encircle the cream of the Cambodian Army. Under attack from the Vietnamese vanguard, the Heavy Brigade withdrew as their supporting 155 mm guns roared in support. The Vietnamese reorganised their vanguard, continuing their advance and, were attacked from the North by the 1st Division. A Vietnamese battalion attempted to turn the Cambodian 1st Division’s eastern flank, but were unable to stop the Fighting First from disengagement under artillery fire. Once more the advance was reorganised, with the Vietnamese column continuing their advance westwards.

Wary of an ambush the Vietnamese moved cautiously through the jungle. However, in a classic meeting engagement both sides crashed into each other. The 3rd Division savaged the lead Vietnamese elements, before withdrawing under cover of an A – 37 flight, leaving only burning wreckage behind. Another attack was launched by the 3rd Division attacking from the South, with a flight of A – 37 Dragonflies, rather than artillery fire, covering their withdrawal.

Belatedly Thiếu tướng (Major General) Nguyen Huu An halted their advance and, laagered his army overnight. After listening to the reports from those in the vanguard, he reorganised the advance into two parallel columns. If either column was attacked, the remaining column would assault the attacker’s exposed flank.

At daybreak on Friday 21 October, the Vietnamese vanguard advanced at a much slower pace, as their leading elements were wary of an attack. The manoeuvre element of the 7th Division led by Colonel Ok attacked the northern Vietnamese column, tearing through their formation. Colonel Ok, failed to identify the danger of encirclement and, allowed his aggressive instincts to cloud his judgement. Surprisingly, Ok ordered his units to continue assaulting through the Vietnamese formation, rather than withdrawing after spoiling the Vietnamese advance. Which initially worked in Ok’s favour, as the Vietnamese overestimated the size of the enemy force.

The southern Vietnamese column hit the western flank of the Cambodian Brigade, isolating the lead Battalion from the remaining two Battalions. The remnants of the Cambodian Brigade launched an unsuccessful attack to rescue their encircled brethren, but were stopped after sustaining heavy casualties. A-4B Skyhawks coordinated by a Fast FAC, flew several missions to support the isolated Battalion.

The Tiger Tanks from the Heavy Brigade, their engines idling, waited at their form up point ready for their attack. Listening to the panicked reports from the 7 Div over the radio, at midday the Heavy Brigade acted without approval, attacked the southern Vietnamese column’s western flank. The ferocity of Heavy Brigade’s attack created space for the badly mauled battalion from 7 Div to withdraw. At the end of the second day, one of the scarce Cambodian manoeuvre brigades was rendered mission ineffective in exchange for another day. The Marine Demi – Brigade was released to I Corps overnight, leaving only the Parachute Regiment of the Strategic Reserve at Pochetong uncommitted.

The following day started much the same as the first two days, with 1 Div’s manoeuvre brigade leading the initial attack. Again, the Heavy Brigade was held in reserve, ready to extricate 1 Div. Like the preceding day, 1 Div attacked the Southern column and, their western flank came under attack from the Vietnamese Northern column. The Heavy Brigade sallied forth in their M-113s and Tiger MBTs, mauling the Vietnamese northern column, allowing the 1st Brigade to withdraw.

Later in the morning, the 3rd Brigade launched an attack supported by the Marine demi – brigade, which stunned the Vietnamese. Recognising the increased numbers involved with the Cambodian attack, the PAVN HQ brought up the trailing formations in preparation for a large-scale battle. Learning from the brutal experiences on the second day, the humbled 3rd Brigade withdrew according to the plan. However, as the 3rd Division withdrew, a flanking attack destroyed the 16th Battalion leaving the mechanised 15th Battalion intact, and severely battering the 17th Battalion. Another attack was launched by the 2nd Brigade in the late afternoon, and a running battle between the two sides continued until night fall.

After sunset, a flight of AC – 47 gunships attacked the Vietnamese forces, but these aircraft were engaged by an anti-aircraft regiment equipped with the fearsome ZSU - 23/4s and S – 60s. The regiment destroyed two AC-47 gunships, forcing the remaining two aircraft to return to base. Despite their loss, the AVRK gunships had prevented the Vietnamese from reorganising and resupply their forces without interruption at night. Concurrent with the night strike by the AC – 47 Gunships, the elite Pathfinders attacked a Vietnamese supply depot, destroying it utterly.

At the end of the third day, the Vietnamese had identified the change in Cambodian tactics and, modified their tactics to suit. Nguyen Huu An decided that if the Cambodians attacked both columns simultaneously, the following units would bypass the lead element continuing their advance. After all, their intelligence cadres had correctly identified that they had destroyed two of the four manoeuvre brigades.

For the Cambodians, the grim mathematics of battle remained; two irreplaceable brigades were destroyed, while another was reduced to half strength. The remnants of the 3rd and 7th Brigades, strengthened the 1st Brigade. As the fate of Cambodia hung in the balance, the United States of America quietly became involved.

Operation Red Snow involved a flight of F – 111As, from the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Takhli Air Base in Thailand. Their mission was to conduct a decapitation strike against the Vietnamese headquarters and the Petroleum, Oil and Lubricants depot identified by their intelligence analysts. Flying at less than 50 feet above ground level at night, the F – 111As dropped their ordinance on both targets without loss and, successfully recovered at Takhli Air Base. The result was the destruction of the POL depot and although the decapitation strike was unsuccessful, significantly disrupted the PAVN Headquarters. Operation Red Snow was only brought to light in 2015, by a Freedom of Information request launched by the family of a deceased American navigator, to allow his father’s service to include the decorations earned during Operation Red Snow.

On the fourth day, the Cambodians seized the opportunity to wreak further havoc and launched another attack. The attack involved the 1st Division supported by the Heavy Brigade and, was preceded by an artillery strike coordinated by a T-A4B FAC. As the Communists lapped around the Cambodian flanks, they were at risk of encirclement. The Cambodians had lost two and a half Brigades, while mauling two Vietnamese divisions, regardless the Cambodians remained outnumbered three to one. General Del committed his trump card, the Royal Thai Army mechanised brigade, whom successfully created an opening for the battered Cambodians to retreat through.

Two SA – 2 Guideline and a single SA – 3 Goa Surface to Air missile site became operational overnight, providing another layer of protection for the PAVN forward edge of battle. Originally, the SAM sites were earmarked to have been erected, prior to the battle. However, their transportation along the jungle tracks had been disrupted by multiple Pathfinder attacks.

The night of the fourth day ended with the Vietnamese encamped opposite the Cambodian forces at Srae Seam. Forces from both sides launched probing attacks throughout the night, in readiness for an attack at first light. Regardless, Thiếu tướng (Major General) Nguyen Huu An was confident that the losses, sustained by his 2nd Corps, would not be repeated.

The Decisive Battle

On Sunday 24 October, the fifth day, the Communists opened proceedings with a heavy artillery barrage of such ferocity, that it rattled the windows in Kampong Cham some twenty miles away. The scale of the bombardment is recounted by First Lieutenant Etienne Deschamps, a helicopter pilot with 106 Squadron.

“I was flying a casevac, skimming the group at about 80 kilometres per hour, when the Vietnamese guns started firing. Their line of batteries would have been about two or three kilometres across. The fire from their shells lit the sky, and I remember I could read my instruments from the light of their guns. At that exact moment, I thanked my lucky stars that I was a pilot and, not a grunt.”

This bombardment heralded the start of the battle of Srae Seam. Finally, the Vietnamese had their chance to destroy the hated Khmers, exacting revenge for their previous defeats. For the Cambodians, the clock had struck midnight and it was now a time for choosing.

The Cambodian I Corps were arranged in a semi-circle, with the 3rd Division occupying the northern flank, and the 1st Division positioned on the Southern flank. The Strategic Reserve was placed behind 1 and 3 Div, providing depth to the Corps position. 7 Div sustained heavy casualties during the withdrawal, and was relocated west of Kampong Cham. Once here, their survivors were allocated to 1 and 3 Div. A skeleton administrative staff remained with 7 Div, to oversee the integration of the activated reserve units assigned to the Division. Each activated reservist participated in a military refresher course conducted by 7 Div.

A long-range duel began as the guns of the 501st Battery of the Cambodian Fifth Field Artillery Regiment, shelled their Vietnamese counterparts. During the duel, most Cambodian soldiers huddled in their foxholes, praying for the shelling to cease. An unlucky few stood watch, waiting for the attack, that inevitably followed the bombardment.

Boxlike shapes advanced towards 3 Div’s trenches, obscured by smoke rounds, and fountains of dirt from the artillery barrage. During the night, PAVN sappers had reconnoitred the Cambodian positions, leaving marker flags behind to guide the Vietnamese troops and tanks through the defensive mine fields. Soldiers from the 304th Infantry Division closely followed behind the advancing tanks, tightly grasping their weapons, bent forward to hide themselves from the Cambodian defenders. 304 Div had previously fought the Cambodians on several occasions first at the meatgrinder at Kampong Cham, to Operation Suryavarman and now at Srae Seam. The Vietnamese soldiers were aware of the losses inflicted by the Cambodians on their peers, and were out to square the ledger.

Whistle blasts shrilled across the trench line, as the defenders moved out of their shelters, returning to the firing line. Cambodian small arms fire engaged the advancing PAVN soldiers, and were joined by the bark from several M -2 machine guns nests.

Another attack was launched against 1 Div by the 306th Infantry Division, while the 325th Infantry Division remained in reserve. The PAVN soldiers threw themselves on the ground, as multiple heavy machine guns opened fire. T – 54s from the 203rd Tank Brigade, methodically engaged the machine gun nests, destroying them one after another.

1 and 3 Field Artillery Regiments fired at the PAVN assault and, were engaged by hidden PAVN counter artillery batteries. The accuracy of the PAVN artillery batteries rendered the supporting Cambodian artillery batteries ineffective. Fortunately for the PAVN assault, the Cambodian defenders were torn apart by the Vietnamese attack, without the protective umbrella provided by their artillery. PAVN tanks and soldiers widened their breakthrough, as the first layer of defence degenerated into a world of bayonet thrust and parry.

A rocket shot up into the sky spewing green smoke, signalling that the surviving Cambodian defenders would retreat to the second line of defence. Those few Cambodians that retreated were cut down by the advancing Vietnamese, too few Cambodians reached the second trench line. While the remaining Cambodian defenders watched, the battle unfold with vacant, unmoving eyes. The Vietnamese advanced towards the next second trench line, taking care to move their mortars forward, to ensure that a continuous rain of high explosive shells covered their advance.

The second line of defences: included several strings of barbed wire interspersed with claymore anti-personnel mines, and anti-tank mines. Multiple M-72 rockets raced towards the PAVN armoured force, destroying three accompanying T – 54 tanks. Despite their losses, the Vietnamese continued their advance, protected by their covering artillery fire.

A flight of ARVK A-4B Skyhawks appeared overhead, catching the Vietnamese exposed in the open ground. However, the Cambodian Skyhawks were in for a rude surprise, as the T- 54s and infantry were accompanied by an anti-aircraft defence regiment equipped with ZSU - 23/4 Shilkas. A jinking A – 4 flown almost at tree top level was riddled with bullets, so that it resembled a coriander, before it plunged into the muddy ground exploding on impact. Multiple SA – 7s rose from the ground, damaging one of the remaining three aircraft as they departed the battlefield. Their attack slowed the Vietnamese advance, but the Vietnamese continued to march towards the Cambodian lines.

Seizing the imitative, the Vietnamese used the accompanying ZSU 23/4 Shilkas in a suppressive fire capacity. The Shilkas chewed up the ground in front of the Cambodian defenders, as the Vietnamese tanks continued to roll towards the Cambodian lines. However, the accompanying Vietnamese infantry could not immediately exploit the opportunity, as their numbers had been scythed from artillery fire. A second wave formed from 325 Div, continuing the stalled attack, breaching the second line of defence. With fresh intensity, the Vietnamese expanded the breach in the Cambodian defence, and continued to press their attack. To either side of the Vietnamese breakthrough, soldiers once more fought hand to hand.

Two flights of A – 37 Dragonflies appeared overhead, rolling into attack the fracas beneath them. The element lead realised that any attack would kill more of the enemy, who were outside of the fortifications. Their attack came at a fearsome cost, as the two flights were engaged by Shilkas, SA – 7s and small arms fire. As the Dragonflies flitted from the battlefield, only three of the eight aircraft recovered at Pochetong airfield.

306 Div attacked I Corps’ southern flank and, were only stopped by a desperate counter attack led by the Thai mechanised brigade. Consequently, the Cambodian Second Field Artillery Regiment, could now able to support the beleaguered northern flank. However, their ability to fire in support of 1 Div was neutralised almost immediately by the death of the sole remaining forward observer. A FAST – FAC was dispatched to the battlefield from Pochetong airfield, but until he arrived 3 Div were without artillery support. The Cambodian headquarters dispatched their reserve led by the 2nd Armoured Regiment, the 1st Royal Guard Battalion and the 2nd Marine Battalion to plug the gap in their lines. Their mission was simple to stop the PAVN advance, before it reached the final line of defensive fortifications. If possible, they were to re occupy the second line of fortifications.

The probability that the Northern Reserve would launch a successful counter attack, stopping the Vietnamese advance, could be seen by the fevered activity undertaken in the third and final line of defence by the Cambodian cooks and clerks.

The Cambodian reserve, led by the Tiger Tank, attacked the northern flank of the Vietnamese breakthrough, wreaking havoc on the unsuspecting Vietnamese. Indeed, such was the swiftness of the attack, that several Vietnamese prisoners reported hearing a horrible mournful sound, which was eventually confirmed as a bagpipe. A combination of excellent training and superior firepower from the Tiger tank with its 105mm gun, meant that the Cambodians destroyed the remaining T – 54s. Panicked the PAVN armoured commander, Thiếu tá (Major) Thach, ordered his vehicles to pop smoke masking their withdrawal. Thach was rudely surprised that another two tanks were destroyed courtesy of the Western infra-red sights. The Marines and the Guardsman supported by their M – 113 APCs and the 1st Royal Tank Regiment successfully reoccupied the second line of defence, temporarily ending the threat to their lines. The Reserve was ordered to remain in place, until relieved by the 13th Infantry Brigade, primarily composed of activated reservists.

By mid-afternoon, the Vietnamese launched a second attack, which was defeated by the reinforced 3 Div. At the end of the day, the Cambodians were hanging on by a thread, despite regaining the second trench line. Thiếu Tướng Nguyen’s captured war diary reveals his confidence towards breaking the Cambodian line over the next couple of days. Throughout the night, the Vietnamese mounted several probing attacks on the Cambodians, preventing them from reorganising and resupplying their remaining units. The probes also sought to identify the location of the Cambodian strongpoints for the morning attack.

The infamous issue of Order 692 by the Cambodian General Staff illustrates the precariousness of the situation, namely that the 202nd Battery of the 2nd Artillery Regiment received special munitions. Unbeknownst to their neighbours, the Cambodians following the near collapse of the South Vietnamese state in 1975, had amassed a chemical weapons stockpile to be used, if Cambodia was on the verge of defeat. After much deliberation by the General Staff, the weapons were covertly distributed to the battery. MOPP suits were issued to the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, the Guardsmen and the Marines in preparation for the following day.

Although the Cambodians had fought the 2nd PAVN Corps to a standstill over the first and second days, they still faced a comparatively fresh enemy formation in the 4th Corps led by Major General Hoang Cam. Furthermore, after the losses sustained during the first two days, the A – 37 Dragonflies from 107 Squadron was declared mission ineffective due to their losses; while 101 Squadron had eight serviceable A – 4 B / C Skyhawks or, based on their current casualty rate, were four missions away from destruction. The Cambodians were outnumbered, outgunned and in need of a lucky break.

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 16, 2017 5:46 am 

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Now for the penultimate chapter and, our tale's dénouement.

Chapter Fourteen: The sound of silence

And in the naked light I saw,
Ten thousand people, maybe more,
People talking without speaking,
People hearing without listening,
People writing songs that voices never share,
No one dare, disturb the sound of silence – Simon & Garfunkel

Monday, 25 October 1976

Captain Ros picked up the ringing handset and attentively listened to the report. Placing the black handset down, he returned to the table and, whispered to the man sitting at the head of the table.

Sisowath Pinnoret, the Minister of Defence nodded his head in acknowledgement and, knocked his fist on the table to silence the room. Although loathe to admit it, he felt every day of his eighty years. To him it seemed only a moment ago, when he was fighting the Bosche with his bearded ones at Verdun; now he remained in the capital much like the chateau Generals from sixty years ago. Getting old was a terrible thing, he thought.

Slowly, the multiple conversations along the table halted, leaving only the soft whirring of the fans in the background. Sisowath calmly met the eyes of each attendee in turn and started to talk.

“Gentlemen, our first units are entering Kampong Cham, the remaining light infantry battalions are moving westwards along National Highway Eleven. Accordingly, the only forces remaining at Srae Seam are the Strategic Reserve’s Heavy Brigade, the Paras and the 2nd Armoured Regiment.”

A couple of the attendees, paused to light their cigarettes, further contributing to the blue grey haze that swirled across the room.

“Intelligence advises that the Vietnamese intend to attack our Srae Seam fortifications within the next six hours. Based on the interviewed prisoners, the Vietnamese attack will involve all three of their remaining divisions.”

Prime Minister In Tam was stunned by the news, the strain of the last six weeks showed on his furrowed brow. "What are our options Samdech?"

"Mr Prime Minister, our remaining forces are inadequate to stop the Vietnamese attack from reaching the eastern bank of the Mekong. Our priority is to safeguard our withdrawing forces, while maximising the casualties inflicted upon the Vietnamese. However, the rain combined with a lack of motorised transportation, means that the last of our light infantry battalions will reach Kampong Cham by 8:00 a.m. The rearguard must buy the time for this to occur, and more than likely that will be at the cost of their lives."

"Why do we need to sacrifice the rear guard, haven’t we used our Air Force and artillery to extract our forces over the last six weeks?'

The Chief of the Defence Staff General Sisowath Monrieth looked down at his hands, before replying. “Prime Minister, our two A – 37 Dragonfly squadrons are down to 4 aircraft from the 30 that started the campaign, furthermore they are unsuitable for the current threat environment. 101 squadron has 6 Skyhawks, as does the RTAF F – 5A squadron. While either the Skyhawk or the Freedom Fighters could support the rear guard, if we lose any more aircraft or pilots, our fast jet capability will be destroyed for several years.”

“Where are the replacement aircraft that the Americans promised us?”

The Chief of the Air Force – Major General So Satto responded, “Sir, the 12 former USN aircraft are scheduled to reach Pochetong air base tomorrow night.” So briefly looked down at his notepad, “with the ground crews working around the clock, the Air Force will be able to fly sorties by the next morning. Our current strength of 6 fighter bombers, precludes us from launching a successful attack against the PAVN forces due to their sophisticated air defence umbrella,” he looked deflated as he continued, “it is my recommendation that the remaining aircraft are held in reserve until tomorrow.”

General Monireth continued, “Any unit that acts as a rear guard, will need to be capable of withdrawing without requiring any support from the Air Force and, need to carry enough ammunition be self-sufficient for two days. Consequently, my recommendation is that we use the two mechanised brigades as the rear-guard force. The correlation of forces is still adverse, which according to our wargames would mean that the rearguard will suffer casualties of approximately 70 % over the next eight hours.”

The Prime Minister was shocked at this revelation, “Surely our units could survive until the Americans and the Australians arrive?”

General Monireth shook his head, “No Sir, the airgroups from USS Ranger and HMAS Australia will be clearing the path for an ARC LIGHT strike, but they will launch until shortly after sunrise. Factoring in transit time, they will be over the battle field by 10:00 hours at the earliest, by which time the battle will be decided.”

Monireth paused before continuing, “Alternatively, we have distributed our stockpile of special weapons to the 202nd Battery; the two heavy brigades have been issued with MOPP equipment and are qualified to use them. The recommendation of the General Staff and the General Chae is that we should utilise the special weapons on the Vietnamese as they attack. Based on our analysis, they are not expecting a Chemical strike; the Vietnamese do not have the equipment or the doctrine to fight in a battlefield with chemical weapons. Consequently, their forces will be plunged into disarray, thereby creating the time for our force to successfully disengage decreasing the casualties that we would sustain. Furthermore, any evidence of a chemical weapon strike will be destroyed following the American air raid, which provides plausible deniability.” The large iron clock on the wall began to chime, as its hands struck midnight, it remained unnoticed by the room's attendees preoccupied by the dramatic turn of the meeting.

“Once the chemical strike has been deployed, the heavy brigades will retreat westwards over the Mekong, destroying the remaining bridges in the process, preventing the Vietnamese from crossing the river without engineering support. Furthermore,” he motioned at Rear Admiral Vong Sarendy, “The Navy's river monitors and PBRs would tear apart any attempted crossing, leaving the Vietnamese stranded on the eastern bank of the Mekong river, having failed to achieve any of their goals. Our analysis indicates in this scenario, that the Vietnamese would proclaim a moral victory, before withdrawing to Central Vietnam.”

“Is there any chance that our allies could become aware of a chemical weapons strike?”

“Unlikely, we have already moved the Thai Brigade to the Mekong’s west bank accompanied by the foreign reporters, consequently there are no international observers to witness the attack.”

“Samdech Pinnoret, how did the Vietnamese respond to your warning?”

“Prime Minister the Vietnamese laughed at us and, told us that the next discussions will be held at rifle point.”

Prime Minister In Tam breathed out and folded his hands on his lap. “So then, my options are to sacrifice the two heavy brigades, or to order a chemical attack on the North Vietnamese Army, thereby potentially opening the Cambodian people to retribution.”

“Those are our options, Mr Prime Minister.”

The Prime Minister turned his chair to look out the window. “So be it General,” the Prime Minister looked down at a sheet in front of him, “I confirm X – T – T – 1 – 4 – D 202nd Battery may execute Order 692 in support of our withdrawal.”

And just like that Cambodia introduced the use of Chemical weapons onto the Indochinese peninsula.

Srae Seam

At night the pack of steel leviathans climbed up the hill; their tracks churning through the red mud like a ship's propeller through the foaming sea. The lead vehicle carefully moved between the white wooden stakes, that marked the path through the minefields, following a flashing green torchlight from a sandbagged hide, hidden on the reverse slope of the hill. The gloomy night sky was intermittently lit up from artillery fire, while the illumination flares cast an eerie glow over the battlefield, seemingly covering the Cambodian and Vietnamese soldiers alike in an incandescent funeral shroud.

The lead M – 113 stopped in front the hide, spraying a thick film of mud across the sandbags. A soldier emerged from the gloom clutching his rifle in his right hand, while his left hand was raised in front of his face to ward off the pouring rain. The sodden figure called out to the driver, raising his voice to be heard over the accompanying vehicles engines and the rain. The driver raised his thumb in acknowledgement, then ducked down into the carrier like a rat down a drainpipe.

A slightly built man emerged from the carrier, only to start wading through the knee deep muddy morass.

“Captain Keo Sir?”

“That's me.”

“Please follow me, the Boss wants a quick word.”

Captain Keo followed the drenched soldier passed the hide, into a communications trench that sloped downwards into the battalion command post, Keo paused for a minute while his eyes adjusted to the white light. A group of men stood clustered before a map, pinned to the wall, talking animatedly. One of the men noticed him, quietly whispering to the man standing in the middle. Keo had been marked as an outsider, by wearing a tiger striped uniform with a subdued green patch on his left arm defaced by a rampant Naga, marking him as a member of the Strategic Reserve. His two-tone camouflage contrasted with the olive-green uniforms worn by the other men. The man turned around, but it was his eyes that shocked Vis, the fatigue that dwelled there; spoke of a man that had experienced the crushing sense of responsibility that accompanied battlefield command. A smile still crossed Keo's face, as he recognised a former upper classman from the Military Academy, the now Major Tep.

Bracing up, “the 2nd Battalion Royal Dragoon Guards is reporting for duty – Sir.”

Tep smiled, “No need for those formalities, so I take it you are leading the Queen's Tigers?”

Keo nodded in response.

“My battalion, occupies a central position in our defensive line, consequently I expect that you will be one of the last units to withdraw. When you do, remember that there are only two cleared pathways through the minefield, which means that the sequencing of your withdrawal will be critical. But as an officer of the elite Naga Division, you don't need me to tell you that.”

“Tep, what artillery units do we have in support?”

“The 3rd Field Regiment with 105s, the 1st Field Regiment with their M – 110s, and I also have a battery of 120 mm mortars that I'm happy to leave with you. After all the men will have a hard-enough time wading through the mud, let alone carrying those as well.”

“Much appreciated.”

“Right, let's go have a look at the forward trench so you can get your bearings, while our staff conducts a hand over, rank has its privilege after all.” The respective battalion staffs were already busy discussing the terrain, and the defensive lines.

The two men moved forward from the battalion command post through a zig zagging trench that led to the first line of fortifications. The two battalion commanders walked by several Cambodian soldiers that lay slumped in their trenches, sleeping fitfully beneath a poncho that only partially kept them dry. Upon seeing their commander, the men greeted him warmly, Tep had led them through the meat grinder at Krong Suong with the Third Division. These soldiers reflected the best traits of the Cambodian conscript, durable, immured against hardship and stoic under fire.

Firing steps had been cut into the trench system, as a junior officer conscientiously scanned the battlefield gloom through a periscope. Tep tapped the officer on the shoulder, who handed the periscope across to Keo, whom looked down the slope to see a valley floor that was pock marked with shell craters, steel carcasses and corpses.

Soldiers from the Queen's Tigers filtered into the forward trench system, commencing their hand overs with the soldiers in each fighting position. The two men returned to the command post, overhearing numerous exchanges of banter between the incoming guardsmen and the outgoing conscripts, to find that the Tigers' had now assumed control of this stretch of the line.

Tep embraced Keo, before walking out into the gloom, where his battalion was formed up ready to march westwards under the cover of darkness and the pouring rain. Unknown to both men the withdrawing regular army battalion had handed over most of their ammunition to the Tigers, leaving themselves only a light battlefield load. The clock inside the command post read 3:30 a.m., two hours before dawn, thought Vis. He sat down at the desk, listening to his Company Commanders, via the field telephone, confirm they were in position.

Private Sang placed a cups canteen on the edge of the desk, the pungent aroma of spicy hot pot soup wafted into Keo's nostrils. Keo rubbed his eyes to temporarily push away the fatigue, before blowing on the soup as he took a gulp. The spices burned his throat and induced a sweat... it was a good soup, he thought.

On the adjacent ridge the non-commissioned officers of the Parachute Regiment, the true veterans of the regiment passed around bottles of brandy to the Paras to fortify their morale. The last time this had been done was at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, on the day that 'Isabelle' had fallen, which presaged the fall of the rest of the doomed garrison.

“Do you want to unroll your sleeping bag, Sir?” asked Sang. Sang's military records said that he was 18, privately he had admitted that he was 17 to Keo, and physically he looked 14. Indeed, the biggest part about him, as the other soldiers teased, were his boots. Despite his slight build, Private Sang was an able batman and a quick study.

Keo looked at his watch, sunrise is in twenty minutes – so no rest for the wicked tonight. Keo savoured his first meal in twenty-four hours, while the first ray of sunlight illuminated the battlefield. The fatigued men of the Naga Division slowly stretched their sore bodies, then mounted the firing steps waiting for the Vietnamese assault. In the dawn’s early light, small groups of North Vietnamese Bo Doi, bounded forward in widely dispersed small groups, wary of the carnage wrought by the Cambodian indirect fire on their colleagues, who lay strewn across the battlefield.

As the Vietnamese reached the base of the slope, a seeming hurricane of Vietnamese artillery descended on the Cambodian trench line. The artillery fire began with a cluster of dirty grey-brown fountains that spouted high into the air, degenerating the scene into a numbing storm of sound, blinding flashes, mud and constant rattle of flying stones and metal splinters. This was not ranging fire, thought Keo, but a real barrage heralding a final assault. Shells were falling along the entire front, it seemed as if the ridge itself had disappeared under a deluge of shellfire.

Kampong Cham had been heavy, but nowhere near as thick as now, thought Keo. The tired cliché comparing incoming artillery shells to that of an old-fashioned steam express training rushing past a few feet away, still seemed appropriate as Keo huddled in the trench. The result is the same a thunderclap destination, which registers as an orange yellow flash inside a dark, leaping fountain of mixed smoke and pulverised earth. The Cambodian counterbattery fire ever so slightly, like attacking an out of control bush fire with a garden hose, reduced the ferocity of the Vietnamese artillery barrage.

Meanwhile the massed waves of Vietnamese were mowed down by Cambodian artillery fire, a TOW missile reached out from the first lines to the left of the Tigers striking a T – 54 tank sending metal fragments cascading across the battlefield. The firing abated, leaving only silence lingering in the air. It was good thought Keo, that he didn't hear any screaming it meant that his men were alive or dead, but in either case they weren't in pain.

They heard a horrible screeching sound as the massed Cambodian Katyusha rockets fired a final broadside at the Vietnamese. The men don't hear the rockets approach, they come in too fast, just the enormous bang of the first one as it burst over the massed infantry sending a shockwave that jarred his skull. Each blast wave pulled the air out of Keo's lungs and sprayed shrapnel across the ridgeline. A giant fist pounded on him twice a second for twenty seconds. Suddenly it stopped. Keo slumped down and violently inhaled air back into his body, his head is ringing with pain and he can't hear anything.

But still the Vietnamese, seemingly oblivious to their casualties, continued their advance. The whole ridgeline was being pounded, raked with gunfire tracer and ball rounds ripping leaves from the remaining trees, ploughing up the earth. T – 54s rumbled forwards as the Vietnamese artillery batteries continued firing. The artillery barrage didn't appear as if it was going to stop, like it had the previous two days, right before the assault wave hit the trench.

'Sir,' called the signaller, 'Captain Pang requesting mortars on D7.'

'Advise. Mortars are committed,' Keo replied tersely. 'No wait.' His mind was racing, it was unlikely to be a diversion, not with the wave of Vietnamese racing towards his position. He looked up considering the situation, after all he had enough mortars to support two battalions, with eight 81 mm mortars and four 120 mm mortars under his control.

'Right I'm splitting the fire of the tubes, four will cover the small ravine in front of Alpha Company and the remainder are used as fire support.' Keo started issuing fire control orders and half a mile back, bombs left the mortar tubes.

This was it the Vietnamese were all in, thought Keo, the campaign was going to be decided in the morning. His signaller grabbed him, 'Boss, special weapons release confirmed 5 mikes, all units adopt MOPP gear.'

'Acknowledge the order, get the men to don their masks immediately.' Keo pulled out his mask, fitting it over his face as he tightened the straps, fitting the gas filter to the mask and purging the air. Once completed, he put his helmet back on his head, resuming looking out at the battlefield through his binoculars.

Then it was time for the Cambodians to respond and hundreds of shells rained overhead, but they did not spray shrapnel over the top of the brave Bo Doi. The Vietnamese continued to surge forwards, seemingly confident that the Cambodians had finally run out of ammunition, as their political officers had promised. In their haste, the Vietnamese ignored the fall of a thousand beads of liquid upon them, confusing it with the rain that continued to fall, then came the first strangling sensation of the vile gas as soldiers coughed and retched tearing at their throats in a desperate struggle for air. Meanwhile, the Cambodians despite their gas masks could smell a pungent sickening odour of stale vinegar. It was a horrible sight to witness the attack ground to a halt as the Vietnamese soldiers dropped to the ground writhing in agony, while tanks ground to a halt halfway up the ridge as the gas seeped through the air filters.

The Vietnamese advance faltered, with the survivors retreating to the safety of their lines, Cambodian forward observers noticed their movement adjusting the fire of the special weapons accordingly. Usually there would be cheering at the site of a Vietnamese attack being broken, but the sheer horror of their death led only to a stunned silence by his men, as they continued to fire into the Vietnamese soldiers. A battered radio crackled the withdrawal order in the background, their delaying action accomplished as the combined United States Navy and Royal Australian Navy air strike crossed the coastline.

Cambodia had received their miracle, but their salvation was in time to be their damnation.

"Fight and Flourish"

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 16, 2017 8:47 am 

Joined: Wed Oct 08, 2008 3:29 am
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I'm enjoying this.

Keep it coming!

Belushi TD

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