US Army in Vietnam - Ambush Tactics Employed against the NVA and VC

Page Title - US Ambush Operations
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"An ambush is defined as a surprise attack upon a moving or temporarily halted
enemy with the mission of destroying or capturing the enemy force"

US Troops return fire after being ambushed by Viet CongBased on their frequency of use by US forces, the ambush was considered a basic technique in countering guerilla warfare. The use of ambushes was not considered as a defensive tactic. Instead, when properly planned and aggressively employed they represented an effective offensive operational means of defeating enemy forces and limiting his freedom of movement. In Vietnam, where the enemy movement was frequently carried out under the cover of darkness, the use of night ambushes took on great significance.

The effects of a successful ambush program were not measured merely in terms of the numbers of enemy casualties. The denial or restriction of the enemies freedom of movement, both during the day and the night, was considered an important benefit since it was viewed that, in order to survive, the enemy had to keep moving. As a result, the continuous harassment, restriction of movement and inability to acquire supplies resulting from such a program was thought to have an adverse effect on the morale and efficiency of both the NVA and the VC.

Some important points about ambushes are contained in these comments by a USMC battalion commander:

"Ambushes are one of the most effective measures for inflicting personnel casualties on the enemy. The imaginative and skillful use of ambushes can also have a detrimental psychological impact. Aside from normal local security, ambushes should be at least 500-1000 meters distant from unit night defensive positions. The tendency to make ambushes too large should be avoided; five to eight men is a good size. Occasionally, daylight ambushes should be left in a unit position occupied during the night in order to take advantage of the tendency of local Viet Cong to search positions for materiel that might have been left behind. "

The last observation made by the battalion commander, concerning the VC tendency to return to a previous ambush site, was often used as a method of springing a secondary ambush on the enemy. Friendly ambushes sprung along jungle trails usually did not have all of the enemy in the killing zone because of the limited fields of fire. Unless a very unusual ambush site was found, part of the enemy element invariably escaped. Experience showed that the VC almost always returned to the area of the engagement within a relatively short time to retrieve bodies and weapons. As soon as a patrol had carried out an ambush, a team, or larger unit, would sometimes move in the direction of the enemy withdrawal, approximately 200 meters, and reestablish another ambush position. In one particular instance, this technique was employed three times by one company patrol with the second ambush making contact within thirty minutes on each occasion.


Ambush operations were dependent on current information of the enemies location, movement pattern, and the size of his forces. Since the bulk of the enemies movement was at night, most of the ambush operations were conducted at night. US units would patrol during the day and set ambushes at night. The size of the ambush force that was to be employed and the method of execution depended primarily on it's purpose, i.e. whether the ambush was to harass or destroy the enemy by the use of a deliberate ambush or an ambush of opportunity.

Missions Performed by Ambush Forces

  • Capturing or destroying the enemies attacking or raiding forces in the vicinity of populated areas
  • Ambushes utilised as a defensive measure in protecting hamlets and villages
  • Capturing or destroying groups of the enemy as they attempt to leave or re-enter their war zones
  • Ambushes executed in order to kill or capture enemy leaders
  • Ambushes set by stay-behind forces in conjunction with tactical operations
  • In search and clear operations ambushes were set to intercept the enemy being driven into the ambush position by the searching element. This ambush mission was used in conjunction with the 'fire flush' and 'rabbit hunt' techniques of searching an area.
  • Ambushes conducted against targets of opportunity

Types of Ambushes

The two general types of ambushes employed were deliberate ambushes and ambushes of opportunity. They were employed against both vehicular and personnel targets.

A deliberate ambush was one in which the ambush unit was assigned a specific mission. It was normally based on detailed intelligence, which included the size, composition and organisation of the enemy force, and the time in which that force could be expected to reach certain points or areas. Al Baker, B Company Commander, 4/9 Infantry stated,

"I read your piece on ambushes and believe that it is correct as far as the book went. Then their is the real thing. In my 3 and 1/2 years there I never saw intelligence that would dictate the time and place of an ambush. Therefore we ambushed all night on likely avenues of approach.  This was particularly difficult because we operated all day and everyone needs sleep.  I was fond of three man positions with one asleep and two awake.  You can survive on 4 hours sleep if it is continuous. That's what we survived on."

'Delta Mike 2' concurs with Al Baker on the subject of prior intelligence,

"As far as ambushes go, there was never any G2 provided and neither were selected AP sites... "

When this information was not available an 'area' ambush would be established with several deliberate 'point' ambushes located along the probable avenues of approach. Also, stay-behind patrols could establish an area ambush by placing deliberate ambush positions on several objectives that had previously been cleared. Deliberate ambushes were also employed outside strategic hamlets for defence of the hamlet and to warn of an attack.


Schematic representation of deliberate ambush with the use of mines

An ambush of opportunity was one in which available information concerning the enemies activity did not permit planning or the establishment of an ambush at a specific point or in a specific area at a specific time. This type of ambush was normally employed when enemy forces were unaware of the presence of US forces and an ambush could be quickly established in order to surprise and destroy the unsuspecting enemy. The course of action which was followed was determined at the time the opportunity for the ambush arose. Units were continually and thoroughly trained in the techniques of rapidly establishing ambush positions. Also, patrols were often simply directed to move to a particular area, establish an ambush, and ambush the first profitable target that appeared.


Schematic representation of the ambush of opportunity

Composition of the Ambush Force

The ambush force was usually composed of an assault element, support element, and a security element.

The assault element captured or destroyed the enemy. It consisted of the commander, a killing group and a search party. The mission of the killing group was to kill or capture the enemy. The mission of the search party was to search the dead and wounded for documents, and to pick up weapons, ammunition and equipment.

Al Baker,

"In the killing zone the machine guns were sighted in so that the long axis of the beaten zone would coincide with the long axis of the enemy.  This meant the that those guns would be firing parallel to the friendly troops... "

The support element provided fire support for the assault element. This element was generally armed with machine guns and/or mortars and mines. The support element prevented the enemy from escaping through the front or rear of the killing zone. if a demolition team was to be employed it was always as a part of the support element.

Al Baker,

"We used lots of Claymore mines in the kill zone and to protect the security elements.  In a linear ambush I would built a ring main on the far side of the kill zone.  The ring main was made with a web of hand grenades linked together with detonation cord so they would explode simultaneously.  The firing mechanisms were unscrewed and removed, non-electric blasting caps crimped on det cord replaced them.  The grenades were strung in trees on the far side of the linear ambush giving air burst effects to the grenades.  It was very effective."

The security element protected the assault and support elements and covered the avenues of approach into the ambush site that the enemy may have tried to use in order to reinforce the ambushed force. The security element also covered the withdrawal of the assault and support elements as well as securing the rally point.

Appropriate Ambush Areas and Sites 

With regard to ambush areas, numerous night ambushes would be laid along railroads, roads, trails and waterways which the enemy had to use in order to approach hamlets and villages. these likely avenues of approach were often deduced if the required intelligence was not known. Sites for ambushes were often found in remote areas by a close study of the those locations where the enemy contacted the population as they were working in the fields. These ambushes would be set before dawn and prior to the arrival of the workers in the fields. Since the enemy had to leave his safe areas in order to enter populated areas, ambushes were also set along roads and trails anything up to 15-20 kilometers out from the perimeter of populated areas.

Once the area for ambush operations had been determined, the actual sites where then selected. Ambushes were most effective when the site selected confined the enemy to an area where he could be destroyed. natural obstacles were numerous in Vietnam for ambush positions, such as cliffs, streams, embankments, and narrow trails and roads with canals on either side.

Al Baker,

"Artillery barrages where planned to ambush sites to be fired after withdrawal to the rallying point.  It was to prevent pursuit of the ambushing forces and disrupt other forces... "

An indirect approach would be used to enter the ambush site, otherwise the enemy could possibly detect friendly movement and employ a counter ambush. At times the use of a circuitous route could involve three or four days march in order to reach the ambush site. A patrol could often find itself occupying an ambush site well ahead of the arrival of the target and in these circumstances patience was essential if secrecy, and hence security, was to be maintained. In some instances it was necessary for units to remain in ambush areas for a minimum of a week and often as long as a month.

Frequently the Viet Cong followed a patrol, waiting for the unit to make a mistake or for a chance to ambush from the rear. There were three recommended ways to counter this VC threat:

  • Drop a fire team or squad ambush on a prearranged signal.
  • Circle back on the patrol route forcing the VC to worry about his rear (see also Security on the Trail).
  • Alter direction of movement every few hundred meters to confuse the enemy as to location and direction of movement of the patrol.


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Vietnam Lessons Learned No. 39: Ambush Operations.  US Army Military Assistance Advisory Group Vietnam (MAAG), March 1964.

Al Baker, B Company Commander, 4/9 Infantry, 25th Infantry Division, RVN, 67-68.

Fleet Marine Force Reference Publication (FMFRP) 12-40, Professional Knowledge Gained from Operational Experience in Vietnam, 1965-1966

Fleet Marine Force Reference Publication(FMFRP)12-41,Professional Knowledge Gained from Operational Experience in Vietnam, 1967


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