The People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) was founded in August 1945, with most of its equipment being obtained from the locally defeated Japanese forces. However, no armored vehicles were put into use by the PAVN, which was soon forced to fight a guerrilla war against the French. In 1952, a small number of PAVN officers were sent to study armored warfare operations at Wu Ming in China. However, these troops were not used to set up armored units. Instead, they were sent back to Vietnam to serve as specialists to develop antitank tactics and to create special anti-armor units. At Dien Bien Phu the PAVN captured at least two M-24 tanks that were still functioning and used them for propaganda purposes.
The PAVN was reorganized and expanded during the period between 1955 and 1960, and new anti-armor artillery and armored units were created. Fearing an invasion from South Vietnam, the PAVN at first reinforced its anti-armor assets and created several battalions equipped with Soviet 57mm guns and German PAK 40 75mm guns. In 1956, an armored company was also set up, equipped with M-8 armored cars and M-3 half-tracks. The origin of these vehicles is unknown; they could have been captured from the French or delivered by China. These armored vehicles participated in a military parade at Hanoi in 1956 and were later assigned to security platoons deployed around VPAF air bases.
The PAVN set up its first tank unit, the 202nd Armored Regiment, on 5 October 1959. The numerical designation of the regiment was derived from the 202 cadre members who had been trained in China and the Soviet Union. The unit was initially equipped with some 35 T-34-85s and 16 SU-76s. In 1964, the 202nd Armored Regiment was expanded to include three battalions, which were equipped respectively with T-54, T-34-85, and PT-76 tanks and SU-76 self-propelled guns. An Armored Forces Directorate was created in the summer of 1965 to coordinate the use of the armored units and to define and employ doctrine.
Having only about one hundred tanks in service, the PAVN did not advocate their use in mass. Its doctrine stated that armor would be employed during an attack, when feasible, to reduce infantry casualties. However, only the minimum number of tanks required to accomplish the mission would be used. Battle drill dictated that lead tanks were to advance firing and be supported by fire from other tanks and from artillery. Close coordination between tanks and supporting infantry was stressed as a key to success in the attack. Because the North Vietnamese lacked air power, they placed strong emphasis on camouflage training in armor units. Facts later proved that armored battalions were able to move great distances without being detected.
As early as 1962 cadres from the 202nd Armored Regiment had joined the staff of the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN) as armor advisors. They asked for a reinforcement of infantry anti-tank weapons, and in 1966 the number of RPG-2s (B-40s) was increased in each PAVN infantry company from three to nine. Each infantry regiment also received an allocation of eighteen RPG-7s (B-41s). The Viet Cong troops also replaced their bazookas and 57mm SR guns with RPG2s and 75mm SR guns. Most of the losses inflicted on US and ARVN armor during the conflict was due to these infantry rocket launchers and mines.
It was only in 1967 that the 202nd Armored Regiment sent two independent companies of PT-76 amphibious tanks to be posted near the Laotian border. They were intended to support an attack against one of the US and ARVN special forces observation outposts that overlooked the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In December 1967, one of the PT-76 companies was sent to the Plain of Jarres in Laos, while the remaining company was put under the control of the 198th Armored Battalion with a BTR-50PK armored personnel carrier (APC) company. The unit was then attached to the Khe Sanh- Road 9 Front.
On 26 January 1968, the PT-76s from the 3rd Company of the 198th Armored Battalion attacked the Ta May outpost in support of the 24th Infantry Regiment. The little ARVN garrison was quickly overwhelmed in this first combat against the PAVN armored forces. Encouraged by this success, the PAVN redirected the battalion against the Lang Vei Special Forces Camp near the besieged garrison of Khe Sanh.
On the night of 6 February 1968, 16 PT-76s attacked the Lang Vei position, which was held by over 500 troops. It was the first time that US soldiers faced Communist armor in Vietnam. Despite stubborn resistance, the PAVN advanced methodically, destroying bunkers at point-blank range. Throughout the night and far into the next day the resolute defenders held on, as their own artillery fire and air strikes deliberately pounded the position. The few survivors eventually broke out and fled to Khe Sanh. The North Vietnamese lost six PT-76s at Lang Vei. The PAVN Armor Command reported that the action was a great success. Despite enemy air strikes, the attack adhered strictly to the doctrine regarding the use of armor and contributed in reducing infantry casualties with a one-for-six ratio in favor of the PAVN.
US forces encountered North Vietnamese tanks a few other times in South Vietnam. A PT-76 was knocked out by a 90mm SR gun during an attack on a Special Forces camp at Bu Dop in 1968. Another was located by a helicopter on 10 February 1968 and destroyed by a tactical air strike during Operation "Pegasus", the relief of Khe Sanh Combat Base.
After the Khe Sanh battle, the 198th Armored Battalion was re-deployed near the DMZ, along the Ben Hai River. It was there that one of the PT-76s was surprised while crossing the river. It was destroyed at extreme range by an M-48 of the 3rd US Marine Tank Battalion. On the night of 3 March 1969, the 4th Armored Battalion from the 202nd Armored Regiment attacked the Special Forces camp at Ben Het. The attack was carried out by a dozen PT-76 tanks and an equal number of BTR-50PK APCs in order to destroy the camp's battery of M-107 SP guns. One of the leading PT-76s struck a mine and was immobilized, but it continued to fire with its 76mm gun. The other armored vehicles were then engaged by a platoon of M-48s from the 1st Battalion, 69th Armor and two M-42s. The unexpected presence of Patton tanks went unnoticed by the North Vietnamese, who decided to retreat after losing two PT-76s and one BTR-50PK. These were the only occasions that American tanks clashed with PAVN armor. At that time, US intelligence sources estimated that the PAVN fielded about 60 T-54s, 50 T-34-85s and 300 PT-76s. A small number of SU-76s was also retained for training purposes. The APCs in use included the wheeled BTR-40 and BTR-152 and the tracked BTR-50.
The PAVN then decided to engage its armor in Laos. In June 1968, a force of ten PT-76s supported an infantry assault that led to the fall of Muong Suoi. In March 1969, the 195th Independent Tank Company was attached to Front 959, which controlled operations in the Plain of Jarres. The company operated 25 PT-76s and had an attached platoon of BTR-40 armored cars. In August 1969, the Laotian Government forces launched Operation "Kou Kiet" and recaptured most of the Plain of Jarres. The offensive was preceded by an intense interdiction campaign by the USAF, which cut the unit off from its supply sources. Suffering from a lack of fuel, the crews were ordered to abandon their tanks and to sabotage them before departing. This was the worse defeat suffered by the PAVN Armor Command up to this point.
In October 1969, the 195th Independent Tank Company was re-equipped and led a counter-offensive, which retook all lost ground. On 17 February 1970, the PAVN continued its advance and attacked Lima Site 22, a Hmong outpost, but the four PT-76s engaged in the assault were lost to mines. A week later, another armored thrust smashed through the outpost.
In 1971, in the Boloven Plateaux in southern Laos, the PAVN deployed the 3rd Independent Tank Company, which was also equipped with PT-76s. The unit supported the operations around the city of Attopeu. The armored units in Laos were recalled into the area of Tchepone to counter Operation "Lam Son 719", the ARVN offensive to severe the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The 202nd Armored Regiment also reinforced the PAVN 70B Army Corps with two additional tank battalions equipped with T-54 tanks. On 19 February 1971, the North Vietnamese armored assault against the LZ 31 was repulsed with heavy losses. The ARVN M-41s proved to be superior in tank-versus-tank fighting. A week later, after several assaults, three T-54s finally gained the summit of the position, forcing the defenders to withdraw.
The PAVN tanks now attacked the remaining ARVN positions around Aloui and engaged in several other battles with the South Vietnamese 1st Armored Brigade. PAVN T-54s and PT-76s took two South Vietnamese Marine positions despite the fact they were atop hills of 550 meters (610 yards) and 543 meters (593 yards) in height, respectively. In fact, during this campaign the North Vietnamese armor succeeded in operating in rugged and mountainous terrain, while the ARVN tanks, which were forced to retreat along the narrow Route 9, were routed. At the completion of the operation, the ARVN claimed 30 PAVN tanks destroyed and the loss of only 6 M-113s. Air strikes claimed another 60 tanks.
In 1971, the PAVN reorganized and expanded its armored forces. A new regiment was set up in November - the 201st Armored Regiment. It was followed by the 203rd Armored Regiment with the 171st, 198th and 297th Armored Battalions. The old 202nd Armored Regiment was also reorganized along with the 4th, 177th and 397th Armored Battalions.
Each armored regiment was organized with three battalions, usually two tank battalions and an APC battalion. The armored regiment rarely used standardized equipment. It was not unusual to have in the same regiment one battalion equipped with T-54 tanks, another with PT-76s and a third with BTR-50 APCS. Each tank battalion had a strength of 38 vehicles; each APC battalion consisted of between 30 to 35 vehicles.
Until 1975 the armored battalion usually operated independently. Each tank battalion had three companies, usually equipped with the same equipment. However, there were exceptions. For example, the 195th Tank Battalion had two companies equipped with Type 59 tanks and one company with T-34-85s. Another example was the 2nd Armored Battalion, which had one company of Type 59 tanks and two companies of K-63 APCS. In fact, the PAVN armored formations exhibited great flexibility in terms of organization and equipment. The strength of a specific unit was then tailored to a specific task or tactical situation, and even to the availability of vehicles. This situation, nevertheless, caused more logistical problems.
The Soviets and Chinese delivered additional equipment to the PAVN in 1970 and 1971, including new T-54B, PT-76, Type 59 and Type 63 tanks. China furnished most of the APCs in service in the form of rugged and reliable K-63. By January 1972, the PAVN began to deploy its armored units in preparation of the Nguyen Hue Offensive. The 171st Tank Battalion from the 203rd Armored Regiment was sent down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to a location east of Tay Ninh, near the Cambodian border. The 38 heavily camouflaged T-54Bs of the unit drove themselves over 900 kilometers (560 miles) in two months. It was thus far the longest deployment of PAVN armor. En route, the battalion witnessed thirty air strikes, but none of its tanks were hit.
The main thrust of the PAVN armor occurred across the DMZ on 30 March 1972, when the 201st and 202nd Armored Regiments supported the attack of five infantry divisions against the ARVN Military Region 1 in what was to become known as the Nguyen Hue Campaign or, Easter Offensive. The two regiments were equipped with Type 59, Type 63 and T-54 tanks and K-63 APCS. The two units were temporarily halted by the ARVN I Armored Brigade at Dong Ha, but they finally pressed on and reached the South Vietnamese defensive lines north of Hue. In September, an ARVN counterattack pushed the PAVN back to Dong Ha. Thanks to effective air strikes and the ARVN tankers, who were better trained in long-range shooting, the two PAVN regiments suffered heavy losses.
In the Central Highlands, the ARVN forces deployed around Dak To and Tan Canh were routed by the 203rd Armored Regiment, which was equipped with T-54, T-34-85 and PT-76 tanks. Another assault against Ben Het on 9 May failed when three PT-76s were destroyed by TOW missiles launched from a US Army trial gunship helicopter unit. On 13 May, without artillery preparation, two PAVN regimental task forces, supported by tanks, attacked Kontum from Route 14. Two other armored assaults took place in the northeastern and southern part of the town. The ARVN infantry fought tenaciously, destroying a dozen tanks with M-72 LAW rocket launchers. Two other armored assaults, which took place on 26 and 27 May, succeeded in taking the northern part of town. Continuously attacked by TOW-armed helicopters and fighter bombers, the PAVN were pushed back on 31 May. By mid-June, when the siege of Kontum was relieved, the PAVN had lost around 80 tanks and suffered 4,000 casualties.
The offensive against An Loc, near Saigon, was supported by the already deployed 171st Tank Battalion and the 20th and 21st Independent Tank Battalions, which were equipped with T-54s. The town was encircled and Route 13, which led to Saigon, was severed by the 20th Independent Tank Battalion, which had crossed the Saigon River undetected on a pontoon bridge. On 13 April, the 20th and 21st Independent Tank Battalions attacked An Loc in support of the 9th Infantry Division, but the coordination between artillery, tanks and infantry was poor. The ARVN soldiers held their ground with LAW anti-tank rockets. An entire column of six T-54Bs that had reached the main avenue of the town was completely wiped out. Another attack force, which was caught in a pre-planned B-52 strike area, lost an entire platoon of tanks.
On 15 April, the 171st Tank Battalion joined the second offensive against An Loc. After losing a further dozen T-54s, the PAVN pulled back and besieged the city. An independent armored company was then set up with captured ARVN M-41 tanks and M-113 APCS. The remaining battered armored formations were regrouped within the 26th Armored Regiment, with two depleted tank battalions and one APC company. This provisional armored regiment was disbanded in 1973.
On 9 May 1972, the PAVN tried one more time to take An Loc, launching an assault that was supported by 40 tanks. B52 strikes, fighter bombers and Cobra helicopters hit the attackers. On 12 May, the T-54s reached the northern and eastern parts of the city and commenced direct tank fire from entrenched positions. On 12 June, the last PAVN units were driven from An Loc after losing nearly all the 40 tanks committed.
The year 1972 ended with new fighting in Laos. The 195th Independent Tank Company, which was brought up to battalion status, received additional Type 59, T-34-85s and K-63s. The unit supported the attack against Sam Thong and the Hmong Headquarters at Long Tien base. The 3rd Independent Tank Company in the Boloven Plateaux was expanded, becoming the 6th Independent Tank Battalion. The unit, which was equipped with PT-76s and T-34-85s, operated around Pakse until the ceasefire in 1973.
Most of the PAVN armor losses of 1972 were attributed to air strikes. The North Vietnamese had tried to protect their units by deploying a considerable number of 37mm and 57mm AA guns and SA-7 (A-12) missiles. Since 1969, some AA artillery units were also equipped with BTR-40As armed with twin 14.5mm machine guns. These armored vehicles operated within independent mobile AA artillery companies. In 1972 they were also used in scouting missions for the benefit of tank units. They were supported by a few ZSU-57-2 air defence vehicles and some locally modified T-34 tanks armed with twin 37mm AA guns mounted on an open turret. The PAVN also modified some BTR-50PK APCs by installing a platform on the rear deck mounting a 14.5mm machine gun. In December 1972, the 237th AA Artillery Regiment was re-equipped with the sophisticated ZSU-23-4 Shilka. During the 1975 campaign, only a battery of four Shilkas was effectively engaged in combat. The remaining vehicles of the regiment arrived too late, after the fall of Saigon.
During the 1972 offensive, the PAVN lost around 400 tanks and APCS. The North Vietnamese then decided to reconstitute and expand their armored forces. The most obvious shortages were assessed, and the infantry divisions were trained to operate more closely in coordination with the artillery, air defense units, and armored forces. The PAVN identified two specific Blitzkrieg-style tactics for the use of armored forces: the "sudden assault" and the "deep advance". The notion of sudden assault implied crushing enemy resistance by a quick attack using the shock effect of tanks to throw the enemy off balance. A successful sudden assault would open the way for an effective deep advance, or pursuit.
In 1973, the Soviets delivered additional T-55, T-54, T-34-85 and PT-76 tanks and a small number of BTR-60PB APCS. US sources indicated that a small number of ISU-122 self-propelled assault guns was also delivered. If that proved correct, it was the heaviest armored vehicle that entered service with the PAVN. Little is known about the operational record and combat use of the SU-100 tank destroyer that was also received at the same time in order to supplement the surviving SU-76s. China also delivered more Type 59 and Type 63 tanks and, more importantly, additional K-63 APCS. In fact, the K-63 became the main PAVN APC used in the 1975 offensive.
In 1974, the PAVN could deploy nine armored regiments: the 201st, 203rd, 204th, 206th, 207th, 215th, 273rd, 408th and 574th Armored Regiments. These units regrouped some 29 armored battalions. US intelligence estimated that the North Vietnamese were then using some 600 tanks and 400 APCS.
Learning the costly lessons of the Nguyen Hue Offensive, the PAVN believed that future combat would be fought at the combined army corps formation level. Each of these corps would have between three and four infantry divisions, one AA artillery division, one artillery brigade and one armored brigade. The 202nd Armored Regiment was the first unit to be brought to brigade strength, with five armored battalions, and was attached to the 1st Army Corps in October 1973. The 2nd Army Corps was set up on 15 May 1974, with the attached 203rd Armored Brigade. The remaining armored units were put directly under the command of the PAVN Armored Forces Directorate. In December 1974, two other unidentified armored brigades were created and placed under the control of the Strategic General Reserve.
The 1975 offensive began with an assault against Ban Me Thout in the Central Highlands. Leading the attack was the 273rd Armored Regiment with a battalion of T-54s, a battalion of T-34-85s and another of K-63s. The quick collapse of ARVN Military Region 2 took Hanoi by surprise. The South Vietnamese decision to abandon Hue further to the north created a panic that was fully exploited. The units of the Tri Thien Front and the two divisions deployed near the Laotian border went on the offensive, quickly followed by the 2nd Army Corps. The attached 203rd Armored Brigade received orders to move toward Hue, but the unit learned that the ancient capital was already taken when its vehicles were still crossing the DMZ. In fact, the brigade played only a minor role in the fall of ARVN Military Region 1. On 23 March 1975, the 574th Armored Regiment, attached to the Tri Thien Front, drove into Da Nang and crushed the last ARVN resistance in the area.
After the fall of Da Nang, it was decided to take Saigon before the first rains of the wet season. The 2nd Army Corps moved south, along the coastal highway, with the T-54s and Type 63s from the 574th Armored Regiment in the lead. In the Central Highlands, the units which had taken Ban Me Thout and Pleiku were now grouped within the newly created 3rd Army Corps. They rolled down to the coastal plains and joined forces with the 2nd Army Corps. The PAVN units also pressed into service captured or abandoned ARVN armored vehicles. The tanks were used only on a small scale, notably the M-41s, while the M-113 APCs were used extensively to reinforce the small amount of K-63s, BTR-50PKs, BTR-152s and BTR-60PBs.
By advancing in tight, combined arms groups, with infantry in APCS, trucks and captured vehicles, the tank units maintained constant pressure on the withdrawing enemy. When resistance was encountered, the leading units deployed for a sudden assault while following units bypassed the enemy location to continue the pursuit. By these means, the PAVN armored units were able to cover an average of 50 kilometers (31 miles) a day. Within two months of the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Campaign, North Vietnamese tanks were in striking distance of Saigon.
By mid-April 1975, the 1st Army Corps, with the attached 202nd Armored Brigade, was also deployed around Saigon. It was followed by the newly created 4th Army Corps, which had three armored battalions attached. Finally, from west and southwest of Saigon was created the 232nd Tactical Force, which grouped three infantry divisions, three battalions and one company of armored vehicles.
During the final assault against Saigon, most of the PAVN armored units were still on the roads, speeding toward the South Vietnamese capital and crushing on the way the last pockets of ARVN resistance. Some regiments saw their organic battalions dispersed on different fronts. For example, the 206th Armored Regiment had relinquished its 1B Battalion, which was equipped with a company of Type 59 tanks and two companies of K-63s, to the 202nd Armored Brigade. The remaining 195th and 575th Armored Battalions, equipped with a mix of T-54, Type 59, T-34-85, Type 63 and K-63, were engaged independently to support clearing operations around Xuan Loc and Bien Hoa. The day that Saigon was taken, the PAVN engaged 400 tanks and APCs against the last defensive positions of the city. On 30 April, T-54 number '843' from the 203rd Armored Brigade crashed through the gates of the South Vietnamese presidential palace. South Vietnam had fallen.
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