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The Enemy and His Tactics

©  By David Wilkins
Adjutant & OC
C Company
2nd Tour

author: David Wilkins

In Vietnam the allied armies confronted an enemy quite different from that encountered in more conventional wars. This was an enemy that generally avoided direct confrontation with allied forces, preferring to be secreted away in its jungle and mountain hideaways, to then launch hit-and-run offensives at opportune times. It referred to itself as a liberation army, aimed at overthrowing the South Vietnamese government and unifying the north and south into one nation. To achieve this objective, four separate but coordinated components were mobilised:

A.     The Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI);
B.     main force military units;
C.     provincial or regional military units; and
D.     local guerrilla units.

Collectively the three levels of the South Vietnamese communist armed forces
(components B, C and D above) were named the Peoples' Liberation Armed Forces (PLAF) or Viet Cong (VC), although large numbers of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers belonged to them. As well, complete NVA main force units were encountered during the war.

Flag of the Viet Cong (VC) Flag of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA)
VC Flag NVA Flag

All four enemy components were coordinated in their activities, forming a web throughout the war zone, receiving their direction from the Central Office for South Vietnam or COSVN, Hanoi's mobile command headquarters of the VC and NVA forces.

As Ian McNeill outlined in his book "The Team", the allied forces were arranged to shield the South Vietnamese population from this enemy organisation like the concentric layers of an onion. At the outer layer, the South Vietnamese army and allied forces fought the enemy regular units; at the next inner layer the South Vietnamese Regional Forces (RF) and Popular Forces (PF) faced the enemy local forces; and in the centre, amongst the population, there was a need for a third force to combat the VCI. This third force was developed under the Phoenix Programme, considered below.

The VCI (component A above)

This was the covert political arm of the communist forces and included the National Liberation Front (NLF).

William E. Colby, former CIA chief in Vietnam, stated his view on the origin of the VCI to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in 1970:

"At the end of the 1945-54 war, the Communists took about 75,000 native southerners north for training in organizing, propaganda and subversion. During the late 50s these cadres returned to their southern provinces and districts. There they revived the networks they had left in 1954, organized the farmers into farmers' groups, womens' organizations and youth groups and began to recruit and train and establish bases for guerrilla groups."

It was the aim of the Vietnamese Communists to have a complete covert alternative shadow government in place when their victory was finally won. The VCI aimed to replicate the South Vietnamese government structure down to village level. Thus, where manpower allowed, communist cadres were secretly assigned positions of village chiefs, police officers, postmen and petty officials at district, province and national levels.

In addition to the VCI clandestinely providing the political and leadership structure of the communist insurgency, it supported the military operations of the VC and NVA units by providing guides, caches of food, clothing, weapons, medical supplies and other war materials, logistical support, and by directing and implementing a systematic campaign of terrorism, extortion, subversion, sabotage, abduction and murder to achieve its objectives. Principal targets were the South Vietnamese officials at all political levels down to village chiefs, local schoolteachers, postmen, policemen and the like. The VCI remained mainly anonymous other than to fellow VCI members and VC soldiers. Villagers who discovered their identity would mostly remain silent for fear of retaliation, which would often take the form of public executions, not just of themselves but also of their entire families.

The allied effort in countering the VCI was conducted by the American CIA in its secret fight-fire-with-fire campaign known as the Phoenix Programme. This involved the development of an intelligence-gathering network and force known euphemistically as the Combined Studies Division or CSD. This third force included members of the Australian Army Training Team, Vietnam (AATTV). Officially the Phoenix Programme aimed at inducing the VCI members to abandon their allegiance to the Viet Cong and to rally to the government, but it was also alleged to have conducted covert terrorist acts of its own against the VCI. Ambassador Colby denied this, stating that:

"The Phoenix Program was not a program of assassination. The Phoenix Program was a part of the overall pacification program."

The Australian Task Force at Nui Dat was not, to my knowledge, involved in the Phoenix campaign, and instead was concerned with fighting the VC and NVA military units.

The Enemy Military Forces (components B, C and D above)

NVA SoldiersWithin Phuoc Tuy and the neighbouring provinces of Bien Hoa, Long Khanh and Binh Tuy, the principal main force formation (component B above) was the 5th VC Division, which usually had its headquarters in the Mây Tào Mountains. It consisted of 274 Regiment and 275 Regiment plus supporting units. North Vietnamese regulars were used to boost and reinforce this South Vietnamese formation and by 1969 comprised the majority of its numbers. Other main force units opposed by 5RAR included the 33rd NVA Regiment, as in the battle of Binh Ba.

The next level of the VC organisation (component C above) contained their provincial units, which in Phuoc Tuy included the D445 Provincial Mobile Battalion. At Nui Dat we referred to D445 as "Phuoc Tuy's Own". This unit recruited from local villages such as Baria, Dat Do and Hoa Long, and operated mainly around Xuyên Môc, the Long Green and Long Hai Hills. These soldiers were regulars and better equipped and trained than the local guerrillas. The personnel of these units were often local to the area in which they served, but when casualties were high outsiders reinforced them.

Another provincial mobile battalion in our area was D440, created by COSVN in 1968 and consisted mainly of NVA soldiers. It operated principally in the north of the province.

The final level of VC military forces was made up of the local guerrilla units in and around the villages (component D above). They consisted of both part-time and full-time guerrillas. They were the archetypal 'farmers by day, soldiers by night', comprising those either too old or too young to fight in regular VC units and dressed as local peasant farmers. Whilst their primary objective activities consisted of taxing the locals, stockpiling supplies, intelligence-gathering, sniping, laying mines and booby trapping, this lowest level force was also employed in the support of VC regional and main force units operating in their locality in the roles of porters, scouts and guides.