Chapter 3 Landgrab 73
The Paris discussions to end the war had resumed on 19 June 1972. On 8 October, the DRV announced a new proposal that led to "acceleration" in the talks and gave rise to speculation concerning an imminent cease-fire. It is beyond the scope of this work to examine the negotiating issues involved; suffice it to say that the DRV insisted that its new proposal was contingent upon an agreed solution to end the war by 31 October. The United States responded with a pledge to try and reach an agreement by that date. Anticipating success in negotiating, the NVA in mid-October began widespread pre-cease-fire attacks to gain land and population. By the end of the month, ARVN counterattacks had nullified nearly all NVA gains, and discussions in Paris again broke down. (See Department of State Bulletin, 13 November 1972, for a report on the October discussions.)
The situation was similar at the beginning of 1973. From information available at the time and from intelligence subsequently gathered through the interrogation of prisoners of war and the exploitation of captured documents, MACV learned that the NVA again planned general attacks throughout most of South Vietnam to take place immediately before the expected date of the cease-fire. These attacks, known as LANDGRAB 73, occurred essentially between 23 January and 3 February 1973. There was, however, a lack of uniformity in local objectives and in the manner in which the local attacks took place.
Military Region 1
In the northern part of South Vietnam, Military Region 1, the NVA B5 Front was in no condition to launch anything but local attacks, as NVA leadership apparently recognized. On the other hand, the BS Front had no intention of giving up any of the terrain in northern Quang Tri Province for which it had paid so dearly during 1972. Throughout January it vigorously opposed with heavy artillery bombardments attempts by the South Vietnamese marines to advance along the coast toward the Cua Viet. Likewise, south and west of Quang Tri City, the BS Front forces prevented any expansion of the Airborne Division's positions into the hills south of the Thach Han River and against the Thach Han River line itself.
The enemy continued to reinforce his defenses in the highlands north of the Thach Han River and west of Quang Tri City. Elements of the NVA 304th Division were shifted to this sector, and additional antiaircraft units were brought into the BS Front, so that by the end of January elements of at least 11 antiaircraft regiments were deployed in northeastern Quang Tri Province. An additional tank battalion from North Vietnam evidently entered the Quang Tri Front on the Cua Viet during January and was probably used in countering the South Vietnamese marines on the 26th. Despite very heavy artillery fire and tank reinforcements, the marines succeeded in temporarily establishing a lodgment at the mouth of the Cua Viet on 28 January.
South of the BS Front, in the area of operations controlled by MRTTH (MR Tri-Thien-Hue), the situation called for a different approach. The populated lowlands along the coast seemed to the North Vietnamese to invite infiltration and occupation. If a political presence could be established there, post-cease-fire evidence of the legitimacy of the NLF could be offered. Therefore, military operations by the main forces of MRTTH were designed to support infiltration.
Elements of the 803d Regiment, 324B Division, had moved into the lowlands south of Camp Evans, and regular forces were moving toward the lowlands north of Hue on 24 January. The next day, artillery and ground attacks increased against RVNAF positions north, west, and south of Hue. Between 27 January and 3 February, elements of the 803d attempted to interdict Highway 1 in the vicinity of the An Lo bridge. In this area alone, the enemy lost approximately 200 killed in fierce fighting in which the North Vietnamese captured a number of hamlets before being ejected. South of Hue, the NVA 5th and 6th Regiments, attacking in the lowlands around Phu Bai, penetrated several hamlets, although most of the infiltrators were intercepted before reaching the populated areas. About 175 enemy soldiers died in the fighting south of Hue. Although the enemy in MRTTH was partially successful over the eight-day period in establishing some control, ARVN forces subsequently drove the infiltrators out. Undoubtedly contributing to the enemy's failure and the South Vietnamese successes was the general antipathy of the population for the Communist forces. The people recalled the massacres of Tet 1968.
South of the Hai Van Pass, NVA operations to seize land and people prior to the cease-fire were under the control of NVA Military Region 5. Intelligence available at the time revealed that officials of MR 5 mistakenly believed that teams of the International Commission for Control and Supervision (ICCS) would be in position at the time the cease-fire became effective. Although the North Vietnamese seized some hamlets and villages, ARVN counterattacks soon drove most of the local and NVA forces out. Both the NVA and the local forces overextended themselves in the brief campaign and could not secure their gains.
Intelligence sources revealed that the NVA expected its main forces to be able to contain the ARVN in its bases and thereby permit local forces to invest the hamlets and villages. The basic assumption was that even though the cease-fire might stop all military activity, local forces would be able to conduct political and propaganda activities without interruption. As it turned out, ICCS teams were not available or deployed to prevent ARVN countermoves, and it is doubtful, even had they been in place, whether they would have had any appreciable influence on military operations.
In northern MR 5, NVA attacks were heaviest in three areas: Front-4 operations were conducted in Quang Nam; the 711th Division operated to contain the ARVN in the Que Son Valley and prevented the ARVN from advancing into the important enemy logistical base in the Hiep Duc region; and provincial and local forces operated in northern and central Quang Ngai, while the NVA 2d Division attacked in the southern district of the province.
In Quang Nam Province, Front-4 had completed its preparations for the attacks by 22 January 1973, including having the 575th Artillery Battalion move rockets into four firing positions for attacks against Da Nang. Fighting began on the morning of 26 January with a ground attack against Duc Duc and a rocket attack against Da Nang.
Numerous attacks by fire and infantry assault were simultaneously conducted against South Vietnamese positions and lines of communication throughout the province, and all district headquarters in Quang Nam Province were hit. Da Nang received rocket attacks for three consecutive days. Coincident with the attacks on the major headquarters and district capitals, the NVA supported the local forces infiltrating the hamlets and villages. NLF flags were sighted in the hamlets of western Hieu Duc District, southern and western Dai Loc, Dien Ban, northeastern Duc Duc, western Duy Xuyen, and parts of northern Que Son District. Subsequent ARVN operations recovered some of these outlying villages and hamlets; the final result probably correctly reflected the relative military balance and political influence in the area.
Southwest of Que Son, just across the province boundary in Quang Tin Province, was the important NVA logistical area centered at Hiep Duc. The 711 th Division was committed to defending this vital area and thus played no offensive role in LANDGRAB. Two days after Christmas 1972, the ARVN 3d Division launched a strong, fast-moving spoiling attack aimed at tearing up the enemy's Hiep Duc base. Deep penetrations were made in the first few days, and the I Corps Commander, Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang Truong, sought to exploit the early success by detaching the 51st Infantry Regiment from the 1s Division and, on 3 January, sending it to reinforce the advancing 3d Division. Maj. Gen. Nguyen Duy Hinh, commanding the 3d, committed the 51st Regiment on the night of 16 January to continue the attack to seize Fire Support Base (FSB) West, a strongly fortified position defended by elements of the NVA 711th Division on Hill 1460 guarding the eastern approach to Hiep Duc. The 51st was able to advance only part way up the slopes ofHill 1460 and could not dislodge the enemy infantry holding the crest. Meanwhile, elements of the 3d Division's 2d Regiment were across the Que Son Valley and had seized the hill above Chau Son, thus controlling Route 534 into Hiep Duc. On 24 January, the 3d Division's attack continued; the objective was FSB O'Connor on high ground just east of Hiep Duc. Two days later, with the cease-fire imminent and the local enemy forces moving into the populated lowlands of Quang Nam, the 3d Division had to terminate its attack barely short of its final objective. A strong counterattack by the 711th Division forces still on FSB West prevented the 3d Division's infantry from gaining FSB O'Connor, but the heavy casualties sustained by the 711th demoralized and weakened it severely. By the end of January, 3d Division troops were busy clearing local forces from the hamlets west and southwest of Da Nang, and by the end of the month only one hamlet remained under enemy influence in Dai Loc District.
Between 23 and 26 January, enemy local forces in Quang Ngai Province infiltrated into assembly areas in the lowlands and on 27 January attacked throughout the lowlands, rocketing the provincial and district capitals and interdicting Highway 1 (QL-1) in a number of places. Several RF and PF posts were overrun. In southern Quang Ngai, the 52d Regiment, NVA 2d Division, established defenses around the district town of Ba To, which it had controlled since the fall of 1972. Rather than challenge this position, the ARVN deployed to prevent the 52d from moving toward the lowlands.
Holding its 1st Regiment in reserve, the NVA 2d Division used one battalion to support local forces in Mo Duc, kept one battalion in the base area, and deployed the third to support the attack of the 141st Regiment in Duc Tho District. It was in Duc Tho that the greatest threat to ARVN security occurred.
On 27 January the 141st's attack reached Highway 1 south of Duc Tho and secured the rest of the district south to the border of Binh Dinh Province. The area captured included the small fishing and salt-making port of Sa Huynh, in which two battalions of the NVA 12th Regiment, 3d Division, supported the attack of the 2d Division. Since the NVA had blocked the only north-south line of communication and had secured a seaport, however small and undeveloped, in the center of the country, the South Vietnamese could hardly permit this situation to go unchallenged. Vigorous counterattacks succeeded in driving the enemy from Sa Huynh by 16 February. Enemy losses in the fighting may have exceeded 600 men, but probably of greater importance was the psychological and political impact of the defeat. Despite having seized Sa Huynh only the day before the cease-fire, the Communists were outraged at being ejected from lands they "legitimately" occupied at the moment of cease-fire. Sa Huynh became a Communist cause and plans for its recapture appeared regularly in intelligence reports until the final days of the Republic.
Military Region 2
The southern part of Communist Military Region 5 included Binh Dinh, Phu Yen, and Khanh Hoa Provinces. Intelligence collected before the ceasefire provided an accurate preview of what could be expected there. The enemy's objectives were to isolate the northern districts of Binh Dinh, hold the ARVN 22d Division in its bases, cut Highway 1 (the only north-south route of any importance under South Vietnamese control), and gather to the NLF as much land and as many people as possible. From the NVA point of view, the prospects for success seemed good, for large segments of the population in the coastal areas of Binh Dinh and Phu Yen had long been sympathetic to the VC, and the ARVN 22d Division had yet to establish any reputation for excellence in battle. Since the area along Highway 1 was fairly densely populated, it would provide a significant population base.
Fighting started in northeast Binh Dinh when, by 23 January 1973, elements of the 12th Regiment, NVA 3d Division, moved from bases in the An Lao valley toward the Tam Quan lowlands. Beginning on the 24th and lasting until the 28th, the attacks were designed to fix the ARVN 41st Regiment in its bases and support the attack of the NVA 2d Division just to the north at Sa Huynh.
South of the Lai Giang River, in Hoai An District, the rest of the NVA 3d Division attacked government posts and attempted to prevent the deployment of the 22d Division. On 28 January, the local forces began their attacks along Highway 1 and in the hamlets and villages, successfully cutting the highway just south of the Bong Son pass and in several places in Phu Yen Province. Farther south, in Khanh Hoa, other attempts to cut Highway 1 were unsuccessful. Although contacts were light and scattered in Khanh Hoa Province, the enemy succeeded in interdicting Highway 21 (QL-21), temporarily isolating Ban Me Thuot from the coast. By the day after cease-fire, a number of hamlets in Phu Yen were under Communist control, but hard fighting by RF and PF succeeded by 2 February in eliminating Communist control in all but two hamlets. By the 5th all of Highway 1 was back under government control, although the route remained closed to traffic until all destroyed bridges were repaired.
Although the enemy seemed to enjoy great chances for success in Binh Dinh and Phu Yen Provinces, it was clear by the first week of February that he had failed to achieve any significant gains. Highway 1 was open from Khanh Hoa Province to the Quang Ngai border, the towns and villages were in South Vietnamese hands, and the local enemy forces had incurred extremely heavy losses.
The NVA's B3 Front included Kontum, Pleiku, Phu Bon, and Darlac Provinces, part of Quang Duc, and western districts of Binh Dinh. Objectives assigned to enemy forces in B3 Front were similar to those in southern MR 5: to hold the ARVN 23d Division in place, isolate the cities of Kontum, Pleiku, and Ban Me Thuot, and interdict the main highways. Attaining these objectives would effectively extend control over the population of the highlands. Although the objectives were in no important way different from those assigned in the attacks which preceded the aborted cease-fire in October 1972, the enemy apparently had learned one important lesson in the October fiasco: it was fatal to begin the attack two weeks before the effective date of the cease-fire. This time the North Vietnamese waited until the night of 26 January to make their moves into the hamlets and villages, and not until the morning of the cease-fire did the attacks reach full intensity. The timing meant that the ARVN would have to conduct its counterattacks after the cease-fire and thus - so the theory had it - be subject to ICCS observation and control.
Preparations for occupying the villages and hamlets in the highlands began on 20 and 21 January when elements of both enemy divisions, the 10th and 320th, began attacks to tie down ARVN defenders. Employing the 24th and 28th Regiments, the 10th Division on 27 January attacked Polei Krong and Trung Nghia, forcing the ARVN 85th Ranger Border Defense Battalion to withdraw from Polei Krong on the 28th. The 320th meanwhile attacked Duc Co on the 20th and the next day gained control of the camp.
Route interdictions began later. On 26 January, in coordination with the Polei Krong and Trung Nghia attack, the 95B Regiment, 10th Division, seized Highway 14 (QL-14) where it traversed the Chu Pao Pass and held on until 10 February. Farther south, in Darlac Province, a bridge on Highway 14 near Buon Ho was destroyed and several hamlets infiltrated. Contact with Ban Me Thuot by way of Highway 14 was interrupted until about 14 February. The enemy's Gia Lai Provincial Unit closed Highway 19 (QL-19) at the Pleiku-Binh Dinh border and maintained the block until 4 February. South of Pleiku City, elements of the 320th Division were successful in closing Highway 14 temporarily. Pleiku City itself received repeated attacks by 122-mm. rockets on 28 January, but damage was light.
Although the enemy's main forces in the highlands achieved their initial objectives in the LANDGRAB campaign, their ultimate failure can be attributed to the weakness of local forces. Not only did they fail to hold occupied villages, but also they sustained heavy losses and the military effectiveness of their units decreased significantly. The most important gain was the recapture of Duc Co in time to receive the ICCS, yet this achievement was caused more by ARVN overextension than by 320th Division strength. By mid-February the military balance in the highlands was generally the same as it had been at the end of December 1972.
NVA Military Region 6 included five South Vietnamese provinces, the beautiful mountain provinces of Tuyen Duc and Lam Dong and the coastal provinces of Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan, and Binh Tuy. This was a sparsely populated region and relatively isolated from the war. The ARVN had no regular forces deployed there, and the RF and PF maintained effective control.
The enemy in MR 6 had only four NVA infantry battalions, one NVA artillery battalion, and two VC infantry battalions, all of them weak and understrength. Action began on the night of 26 January with an attack on a hamlet north of Dalat, the capital of Tuyen Duc. Another enemy force attempted unsuccessfully to enter a hamlet north of Phan Thiet in Binh Thuan. Although local forces South Vietnamese control. Highway 1 through the coastal provinces was never successfully cut, and the only lasting result of the campaign was the serious depletion of the enemy's local force battalions.
Military Region 3
The enemy's Eastern Nam Bo Region was roughly the same as South Vietnam's Military Region 3 (Binh Tuy, Gia Dinh, Hau Nghia, and Long An Provinces were excluded). In addition to scheduling attacks close to the cease-fire date, the NVA in October 1972 had also learned that it lacked the strength to infiltrate the Saigon area with main forces. Thus LANDGRAB 73 in Eastern Nam Bo did not begin until a few days before the cease-fire was to become effective, and Saigon was not an objective.
As in other populated areas of South Vietnam, the enemy's objective just before cease-fire was to extend the area under Communist control and gather more people to the National Liberation Front, but in the Eastern Nam Bo region a second objective applied: to establish a suitable capital for the NLF in South Vietnam. Intelligence collected in the weeks before cease-fire appeared to indicate that Tay Ninh City, the capital of Tay Ninh Province, had been selected; but for reasons not fully clear, the Communists failed to allocate sufficient forces to capture the city. ARVN preemptive operations in January 1973 most likely eliminated the enemy's capability to assign main forces to a Tay Ninh campaign. As a result, only relatively weak, local forces were available, and the campaign failed.
At the end of the first two weeks in January, ARVN III Corps began an attack into the Saigon River corridor and advanced all the way to Tri Tam in the Michelin plantation. Enemy losses were estimated in excess of 400 killed. The damage and disruption caused in enemy bases in the Long Nguyen Secret Zone and the Boi Loi woods were extensive. Heavily supported by B-52's, the ARVN disrupted the enemy's plans for pre-cease-fire operations. The NVA 7th Division was forced to deploy in the Michelin plantation, and the ARVN contained it there during this critical time. The Michelin operation also impelled the NVA to keep major by 30 January. Another thrust was repulsed with elements of the 9th Division in defensive positions around An Loc and Loc Ninh in Binh Long Province. Intelligence reports had indicated that the 9th was to play an important role in the Tay Ninh attacks.
The number and intensity of attack by fire significantly increased from 23 through 25 January. Widespread attacks by fire and assault began on the 26th and 27th against ARVN and RF-PF outposts, mostly on those located in defense of major lines of communication. Among those hit were Trang Bang on Highway 1, the vicinity of Trang Bom in Bien Hoa Province, the junction of Highways 1 and 20 in Long Khanh Province, Highway 13 south of Chon Thanh and north of Lai Thieu in Binh Duong Province, Highway 15 south of Long Thanh and north of Phuoc Le, and Highway 23 in southern Phuoc Tuy Province near Dat Do. Enemy casualties were fairly heavy, especially along Highway 13 south of Chon Thanh, where the Communists lost over 120 killed.
The Communists attained some short-term successes, for about 144 hamlets were reported contested at one time or another during the period 23-29 January 1973. (During the October 1972 attacks, only 96 hamlets were contested.) Nevertheless, by 3 February only 14 hamlets remained under enemy control, and four days later all hamlets in the region were back under control of South Vietnamese forces. The line-of-communication interdictions were also short lived; all major roads were open by 1 February.
In keeping with the Communist goal of political control, terrorist attacks during the brief campaign were few, apparently on the theory that widespread terrorism would antagonize the people. As it was, in most instances the people would leave their hamlets as the enemy forces entered and return only when government forces had ejected the Communists. The enemy's political objectives were not achieved, the attempt to seize Tay Ninh City never approached success, and territorial forces were able to clear the enemy from outlying hamlets with only minimal assistance from the ARVN. The cost of the campaign for the enemy was heavy: over 2,000 Communist troops were killed and 41 captured. A large proportion of the casualties occurred in local forces; they were weak at the beginning and weaker still at the end. They never recovered.
Military Region 4
Just as the ARVN preempted enemy operations in Military Region 3 so it did also in the Mekong Delta. In a delta-wide operation known as Dong Khoi, the ARVN and territorials planned to attack for six days beginning on 15 January, but so spectacular were the early successes that the operation was extended for six more days. Losses of over 2,000 killed and disruptions in deployment and logistical activity, coming just before LANDGRAB, seriously affected the enemy's ability to launch a significant offensive.
The areas the Communists planned to capture in the delta were those having the greatest potential for subsequent exploitation and expansion. In the northern delta, they considered the border area with Cambodia from Ha Tien in the west to the Parrot's Beak in the east to be most important, to include northern Kien Giang, Chau Doc, Kien Phong, Kien Tuong, and Long An Provinces. Western Hau Nghia Province also had high priority as did central Dinh Tuong Province. Highway 4 from the southwestern delta to Saigon crossed the center of Dinh Tuong, and the area around My Tho, the capital, was densely populated. The Communists also wanted to extend their control in Chuong Thien Province. Having already established control in the U Minh Forest, they could anchor the terminus of infiltration corridor 1C from Cambodia through Kien Giang into the lower delta. But because of the South Vietnamese Dong Khoi operation, none of these goals was destined to be realized.
Communist Military Region 2 included eight of the delta provinces: in the north, Chau Doc, which contained the enemy base in the Seven Mountains on the Cambodian border; to the east, Kien Phong and Kien Tuong, with the vast marshy area of the Plain of Reeds; to the south of these three border provinces, the central Mekong provinces of An Giang and Sa Dec, whose dense populations were under relatively strong South Vietnamese influence and control, and the vital, populous province of Dinh Tuong; and in the far south, the coastal provinces of Kien Hoa and Go Cong.
LANDGRAB 73 in Communist MR 2 appeared to begin on 23 January 1973 when two battalions of the NVA 207th Regiment crossed the Cambodian border into northern Kien Phong Province. This invasion coincided with at least 13 light attacks by fire and ground probes. Two Communist soldiers captured that day revealed that the NVA's intention was to capture the district town of Hong Ngu, destroy all government posts along the border, intercept RVNAF relief columns, and then extend the attack southward deep into Kien Phong Province. Attacks were recorded along the entire border. In one of many sharp engagements northeast of Cai Cai, RVNAF casualties were light but the enemy lost 32 killed and two prisoners. In heavy fighting on the 25th, the ARVN again incurred light casualties but killed 47 of the enemy. Enemy losses in less than three days exceeded 100 killed in exchange for only minor ground advances. Following this flurry of attacks, the fighting in Kien Phong Province abated and remained so until the eve of the ceasefire. South Vietnamese bases were subjected only to sporadic light attacks by fire.
In Dinh Tuong, despite a heavy concentration of enemy main force units in the center of the province (the 5th and 6th Divisions, the E1, 6th, DT1, and 320th Regiments, and possibly elements of the 174th Regiment), the level of activity was surprisingly low. Even on 28 and 29 January, when the number of attacks approximately doubled, the weight of the attacks remained low. Although ground contact was made with elements of the 174th Regiment in the area known as Tri Phap, these contacts subsided after the cease-fire, probably attributable to the enemy's high casualties.
In eastern Dinh Tuong and Go Cong Provinces a prisoner reported that main forces, including the NVA 88th and 24th Regiments, were to break down into small units and conduct political activity among the population. This tactic was to create the impression that the local forces were everywhere throughout the delta and would support Communist political activity. The troops had instructions to limit the use of heavy weapons and thus gain more credibility as local guerrillas. Local South Vietnamese forces responded effectively to this campaign, and the Communists achieved no significant gains.
The NVA's Military Region 3 included the nine provinces of the lower delta. Kien Giang, on the Cambodian border, was the northernmost. The delta capital and the headquarters for the ARVN IV Corps was at Can Tho in the central Mekong province of Phong Dinh. The Communists' only relatively secure and uncontested base area in the delta was in MR 3, the U Minh Forest, a vast mangrove swamp and forest extending across the border of Kien Giang and An Xuyen Provinces on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand.
As elsewhere in the delta, activity in MR 3 increased sharply on 23 January. Well over half of the incidents reported were harassments and attacks by fire against South Vietnamese posts. In the northwest, the NVA Ist Division sent troops across the frontier from Cambodia with the apparent purpose of having them in position for the kickoff of operations at the time of the cease-fire. Documents captured in sharp fighting near Ha Tien village in northwestern Kien Giang were identified as belonging to a battalion of the 52d Regiment, 1st Division, and subsequent interrogation of a captured prisoner confirmed the battalion's presence as well as those of the regimental headquarters and a second battalion. The prisoner also gave evidence of the regiment's low morale; many of the soldiers had recently been released from military hospitals, and the general health of the unit was low. The regiment's mission was to occupy the Ha Tien area and show the VC flag prior to the cease-fire. Combined RVNAF operations, employing the Air Force and the Rangers, pushed the 52d back into Cambodia. Air strikes killed more than 70 soldiers of the 52d, and ground fighting accounted for at least 15 more.
The enemy's 44th Sapper Regiment, also subordinate to the 1st Division, began operations in the Seven Mountains of Chau Doc on 15 January with attacks by fire against South Vietnamese posts. The 44th moved into the Seven Mountains near Tri Ton on 23 January to occupy as much territory and gain control of as much population as possible, but ARVN counteroperations again prevented any significant successes. The third element of the NVA 1st Division, the 101D Regiment, apparently remained in its base in the Seven Mountains and contributed to LANDGRAB only with attacks by fire.
The highest level of enemy activity in NVA Military Region 3 occurred in Chuong Thien Province. No fewer than four NVA regiments were available to converge on the province capital, Vi Thanh. The NVA 18B Regiment was to the northwest, the 95A Sapper Regiment was south along with elements of the D2 Regiment, and part of the Dl Regiment was in eastern Chuong Thien near the Phong Dinh Province border. The headquarters for MR 3 was in the center of the province.
The number and intensity of attacks increased sharply on 26 January, including a series of mortar and rocket attacks, some with 120-mm. mortars, southwest of Y Tang. The activity increased again on 27 January and a number of outposts and district towns experienced ground attacks and attacks by fire. Contingents of the D2 Regiment penetrated the district town of Long My as far as the marketplace before they could be driven out. On the same day Kien Thien received a heavy bombardment followed by a ground attack by elements of the 95A Sapper Regiment. This attack was also repelled. At Kien Hung, through the nights of 27 and 28 January the 18B Regiment conducted attacks by fire. By the morning of 28 January the town was surrounded by enemy troops, but South Vietnamse forces successfully held. The province capital, Vi Thanh, received sporadic attacks by fire, but casualties and damage were light.
Attacks were widespread to the far south, primarily against territorial force outposts and district towns; but in no case did the situation change markedly from that before the LANDGRAB campaign got under way. The activity appeared to crest by midday on 28 January, and a general uneasy quiet followed. During LANDGRAB in MR 2 and 3, at least 125 hamlets came under Communist attack, but no more than 20 were ever being contested at any one time. No main lines of communication were ever threatened, and all major roads and canals remained open to traffic. Assassinations and other terrorism lagged. Nowhere in the Mekong Delta did the Communists make any significant or lasting gain. In the face of the highly successful South Vietnamese Dong Khoi campaign, the enemy apparently realized that major territorial acquisitions were impossible.
Relative Strength, 31 January 1973
There are countless ways to display order of battle comparisons. All can be misleading if they are used to form judgments regarding relative strengths and capabilities without reference to other factors such as training, battle experience, weaponry, tactics and techniques of employment, missions, morale, and mobility. Showing the opposing forces that appeared on the South Vietnam battlefields as the final two years began is nevertheless useful in understanding later developments.
At the end of January 1973 the ARVN had an assigned strength of about 450,000 men. Of this strength about 152,000 were in the infantry divisions and another 10,000 in the Ranger groups. A small number was assigned to the separate nondivisional artillery, cavalry, and tank units. The remainder was to be found in training, logistical, and other service and administrative support organizations and in hospitals. South Vietnam also had a Navy of about 42,000 and an Air Force over 54,000. It had in addition about 325,000 in the Regional Forces, some 200,000 in the Popular Forces, and over 4,000 in the Women's Armed Forces Corps, for a total authorized strength of close to 1.1 million. Actual strength was probably less than a million, however.
In contrast, the North Vietnamese at the time of the cease-fire had about 148,000 combat troops in South Vietnam, including slightly over 16,000 assigned to 15 antiaircraft artillery regiments. Supporting this force in South Vietnam were some 71,000 administrative and logistical troops.
These gross figures - 1.1 million South Vietnamese versus 219,000 Communists in South Vietnam - tell little about relative combat power, however. A closer look at the combat force structures and the missions of the opposing armies gives one a somewhat clearer understanding. For example, the North Vietnamese combat strength in South Vietnam included 15 infantry divisions. These were opposed by 13 RVNAF divisions. As another example, the Communists fielded 27 separate infantry and sapper regiments, whereas the only roughly comparable units in the RVNAF were 7 Ranger groups.
At this point, attempts at comparing combat units begin to break down. This is because of the entirely different missions the opposing armies had. Communist combat strength in the South was devoted almost entirely to offensive operations against fixed government bases, hamlets and villages, and lines of communication, while the separate RVNAF battalions were assigned almost exclusively to fixed defensive missions. Thus, comparing some 140 separate Communist battalions of infantry, sapper, reconnaissance, tank, and artillery to the 54 ARVN Ranger battalions and 300 or more regional force battalions is rather meaningless.
Any consideration of North Vietnamese strength should also take into account a large administrative and logistical support force within North Vietnam similar to South Vietnamese backup forces. North Vietnam also had the distinct advantage of not having to defend lines of communication or base areas in North Vietnam from ground attack. It did, however, have to use significant numbers to defend against air attack in North Vietnam and small numbers to protect lines of communication through Laos and Cambodia.
The Communists normally maintained five training divisions in North Vietnam: 304B, 320B, 330th, 338th, and the 350th. In January 1973, however, elements of only two NVA regular infantry divisions, the 308th and 308B, were in North Vietnam.
Two more divisions were soon to return to North Vietnam from Quang Tri Province, the 312th and 320B, and later the 316th Division came back from Laos. The 341st Division was recreated in the southern part of North Vietnam, and the 338th was converted to a regular line infantry division. In addition to having a sizable training base and strategic reserve, the North Vietnamese maintained in each of the seventeen provinces a provincial unit of about regimental size. They also had a militia estimated at 1,600,000, many of whom were employed in air and coastal defense and in logistical and engineering work. A regional force was drawn from the best of the militia, contained men only, and had an estimated strength of 51,000. Exclusive of the militia, the North Vietnamese in January 1973 had an army between 500,000 and 570,000, of which about 290,000 were in North Vietnam, 65,000 to 70,000 in Laos, 25,000 in Cambodia, and the rest in South Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese Army thus contained about 100,000 men more than that of South Vietnam. It also contained more infantry divisions, a reserve (which the ARVN could not afford), far more antiaircraft artillery and air defense missiles (of which the ARVN had none), and a larger tank force.
The North Vietnamese, on the other hand, had only a small navy of about 3,000 men, limited to close-in security of territorial waters. They had one KOMAR guided missile boat, but failed to deploy it southward. The North Vietnamese Air Force was small but contained some modern air-to-air fighters that had earlier proved their capability against U.S. fighter-bombers. In January 1973, about 10,000 men were assigned to the North Vietnamese Air Force, operating about 300 aircraft including slightly over 200 jets, a few turboprops and helicopters, and some 60 assorted propeller airplanes. The air force was light in transport aircraft, and its jets were devoted entirely to air defense. South Vietnam's air force, in comparison, was well-balanced. Although its pilots had no experience in air-to-air combat, they had developed a high degree of skill in ground support, reconnaissance, and transport roles. As events developed, the two opposing air forces were never to be employed against each other.
One of the most spectacular developments during the cease-fire period was the rapid increase and sophistication in the air defense system the North Vietnamese moved into South Vietnam. Sometime in January 1973 and probably not later than the 27th, elements of the 263d NVA SAM Regiment, equipped with SA-2 missiles, deployed to Khe Sanh in Quang Tri Province. The regiment had four firing battalions and one support battalion, each firing battalion having four to six launchers and occupying one firing site. Aerial photography disclosed the construction of three sites in the Khe Sanh area during February, and a fourth battalion moved into a site in April. (In a television appearance on Face the Nation on 11 March, Secretary of State Rogers was "pleased to report here this morning that the missile site has been removed from Khe Sanh." - Department of State Bulletin. 2 Apr. 73. p. 373. - The Secretary was misled by a preliminary report from Saigon; the launchers did disappear from one of the sites, but they reappeared within a few days. Launchers, missiles, and related equipment were periodically shifted from site to site around the Khe Sanh complex.)
The SA-2, a Soviet missile similar to the U.S. NIKE, had a range in distance and altitude of about 19 nautical miles and 85,000 feet. Its location in the Khe Sanh area provided protection to the important logistical complex the North Vietnamese were constructing in Quang Tri Province along Highway 9 and at the junction of that route and Highway 14. One air defense division, the 377th, was deployed to South Vietnam, while in North Vietnam there were over thirty automatic weapons regiments, more than ten SAM regiments, and from time to time up to nine air defense divisions. The ARVN, on the other hand, had four battalions of antiaircraft, but only two of these were operational.
The Balance Sheet
The operations of late January and early February 1973 followed the patterns established in October 1972 when a cease-fire had appeared imminent, except that the enemy waited until much closer to the date of the cease-fire to start the campaign. Otherwise, the objectives and techniques were substantially the same. Main force units generally defended the territory already under control and attacked to fix ARVN regulars in their bases while local NVA and VC units entered the hamlets. Throughout South Vietnam, the campaign between 28 January and 9 February cost the Communists over 5,000 killed in exchange for little alteration in the situation that existed in mid-January. By 9 February, only 23 of more than 400 hamlets attacked were still reported as contested.
U.S. observers at MACV in Saigon attributed the enemy's failures to errors on his part, the limited capabilities of the local forces, and an outstanding performance by the RVNAF. The enemy had obviously erred in delaying his pre-cease-fire operations in the expectation that the RVNAF would be deterred in counterattacking by the presence of ICCS teams.
The Communists committed their other important strategic mistake by breaking down the local forces
into small units and attacking at so many places thereby reducing the staying capacity of any local unit. The ARVN and local RF and PF were able to react deliberately against these hamlet challenges and to eliminate them one by one. The enemy's local forces were decimated and never recovered. South Vietnamese forces had clearly learned much of the enemy's strategy and objectives from the preview in October and had planned accordingly.
LANDGRAB 73 spanned the end of the second Indochina war and the beginning of the third. It demonstrated that South Vietnam's armed forces could probably hold their own against the force the North had at that time on the southern battlefields. It also demonstrated that the military balance in South Vietnam was close to even.
Note on Sources
Two principal sources were used: The MACV Official History and a MACV study "LANDGRAB 73." Order of battle information was derived largely from Defense studies and estimates retained by DAO Saigon Intelligence Branch. More details on deployments were obtained from American Embassy reports, extracted from DAO files, as well as from notes retained by the author. Deployments and other order of battle information were checked by the Vietnamese officers mentioned in the "Note on Sources," Chapter 1. Much of the information on Sa Huynh was from a Fact Sheet, prepared from MACV records, by DAO Intelligence Branch in May 1973.