2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the momentous Vietnamese Communist 1968 Tet Offensive that saw the political end of US President Lyndon Johnson and the beginning of the US retreat from South East Asia. Tet 1968 was spearheaded by the Communist ‘Sapper’ force. Immortalised in Australian pop-culture by the (ahistorical) opening lyrics of Cold Chisel’s ‘Khe Sanh’, the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) or Viet Cong (VC) ‘Sapper’ is for many, an iconic feature of the Vietnam War. However, few recognise that NVA/VC ‘Sappers’ were in fact well-trained and disciplined commandos, who were essential to the ultimate North Vietnamese victory in the war. The highly effective Vietnamese Communist employment of commandos against Saigon and its allies, provides insights into the organisation and application of Special Operations Forces (SOF) relevant to contemporary ADF campaigning.
An authority on special operations, James Kiras has argued that the strategic effect achieved by SOF in war is generally twofold: firstly, to contribute at a campaign level through large numbers of small scale special operations to attrite the moral and material resources of the adversary; and secondly to improve the strategic performance of conventional forces. In their own unique way, the Vietnamese Communists evolved a highly effective commando capability that had significant strategic effect, both in terms of achieving moral and material attrition against their adversary, while also enhancing the performance of North Vietnamese general purpose and guerrilla forces.
Unbeknown to many, Communist commandos spearheaded or directly supported every major military campaign executed by Hanoi. Noteworthy operations included: sinking a US escort carrier (USS Card) at anchor in the Saigon River in 1964 (which Hanoi celebrated on a postage stamp – the 60’s version of Twitter), shocking the world in their effective surprise attack on the US embassy in Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive, and leading the assault to capture and then defend the Hue Citadel in the same campaign. After the losses of the 1968 Tet offensive, commando-led economy of force operations became a central component of Hanoi’s strategy to sustain pressure on Saigon and its allies against the backdrop of the Paris talks. During the 1972 ‘Nguyen Hue’ Strategic Offensive, commando units conducted numerous supporting and diversionary strikes to enable the three NVA Corps level thrusts from the DMZ, in the Central Highlands and at An Loc 90km north of Siagon. During the North’s 1975 ‘Ho Chi Minh’ Strategic Offensive, commandos conducted ‘Coup de Main’ operations, neutralised airfields, destroyed theatre logistics assets, disrupted rear areas and captured key points such as bridges on major thrust lines, to enable the rapid advance of NVA combined arms forces, all the while sapping the moral and confidence of US forces fighting to maintain control of the South. According to a US intelligence estimate in 1969 (PDF pg. 15), the overall impact of communist commandos in Hanoi’s war effort was significant.
Born in the crucible of combat, NVA/VC commando units grew from local organisational adaptations amongst Viet Minh guerrilla forces during the war against the French colonialists. Early commando units focussed on penetrating and neutralising fortified targets, conducting sabotage and assassination missions. These units evolved to become specialist cells, platoons, companies and battalions, operating in direct support of the respective communist Military Regional Commands (Corps level geographic commands), Fronts, Divisions and Regiments across Indochina, with increasingly standardised equipment and tactics. Towards the latter part of the war with the U.S., commando units were employed at Regimental level in support of the respective Military Regional Commands.
Success breeds success. In 1967, the North’s then President Ho Chi Minh directed that SOF were to become their own branch of the People’s Army of Vietnam, equivalent to the Artillery and Infantry branches. During the ceremony, Senior General Vo Nguyen Giap affirmed the branch’s mission was to:
‘…[attack] important enemy targets, important enemy personnel, headquarters agencies and nerve centers, technical weapons and equipment, logistics storage facilities, and airfields, meaning the enemy’s most important material facilities and resources; to attack with very small but high quality and very effective combat forces; to annihilate large numbers of enemy troops; and to secure tremendous victories.’[I]
NVA/VC commandos were rigorously selected and specially trained along three functional lines: Rural, Water and Urban.
Rural commandos were tasked to reconnoitre and clandestinely infiltrate defended enemy positions and to eliminate specific high value targets such as command posts, artillery systems, ammunition and fuel storage sites, airfields, and aircraft. They would also act as spearheads for conventional unit attacks and tasked with training of non-SF units in special techniques. Rural commandos were experts in silently penetrating through wire obstacles and minefields by night to identify and neutralise a high value target using small arms and demolitions.
Water commandos were tasked with interdicting allied assets on the Southeast Asian Waterways. Their targets included: ‘commercial and military shipping, bridges, and piers, floating military bases, shore bases, power plants…’ and any other high value target located near waterways.
Employing both male and female operatives, urban commando units were designed to operate in covert cells inside enemy held cities to collect intelligence, and to conduct sabotage and assassination operations in coordination with local guerrilla and main force units. Urban commandos maintained close contact with the communist military intelligence agencies. They were also tasked to conduct armed propaganda, to seek out enemy agents, and capture prisoners for exploitation.
Fifty years since Vietnamese commandos shook the world when they attacked the US Embassy in Saigon, the Vietnamese Communist’s highly effective employment of commandos in their war against Saigon and its allies is a useful, if not little known case study in the organisation and employment of a successful special operations campaign. Their often unheralded activities illustrate the contribution that sustained and well-orchestrated SOF operations can make to the broader strategic campaign.
[i] Nguyen Quoc Minh, Vu Doan Thanh, Pham Gia Khanh, and Nguyen Thanh Xuan, History of the Special Forces, Volume I, Translated by Merle Pribbenow, (People’s Army Publishing House, Hanoi, 1987), p. 173
About the author: LTCOL N is the Commandant of the Special Operations Training and Education Centre