It was posited that, as the Government forces regained control of an area and the villages and hamlets therein, the enemy would have to remain mobile in order to maintain contact with the local population. In so doing they would become increasingly vulnerable to ambush operations and since the enemy was forced to move in small groups and at night it was increasingly necessary to employ night ambushes.
Since the enemy was required to move from his secure areas and base camps in order to make contact with the people, ambushes were considered as being effective against him both within and without the periphery of the war zone.
Ambushes that were conducted with imagination and skill were an effective means of inflicting casualties on the enemy. Successful ambushes required patience, endurance, perseverance, aggressiveness, and a high degree of self-discipline on the part of ambush team members. Experienced ambush team leaders noted a relationship between the size of the ambush and the personal attitude of the personnel comprising the ambush unit. Members of a squad-size patrol were usually alert and vigilant en route to and within the ambush site. However, the average soldier appears to have felt less responsibility and was more relaxed when he was part of an ambush force larger than a squad. This false sense of security could result in carelessness and lax discipline which may caused the ambush to fail. In addition to the personal requirements, certain other factors were influential in the success or failure of ambushes.
Most ambushes were set at night and during early morning hours since these were the hours during which the enemy was most active. Careful consideration of intelligence information sometimes indicated the best times for intercepting enemy movement. The time factor also had counterintelligence implications. Departure from and reentry into friendly lines would be planned for a period when the patrol would be least exposed to enemy surveillance.
The proper moment to spring an ambush once the enemy was sighted had to be thoroughly understood by all members of the patrol. Pre-maturely triggered ambushes yielded fewer enemy kills and could result in friendly casualties. The first shot would be held until the patrol leader was positive that the enemy was in the killing zone. The assumption that the enemy will use the obvious trails, roads and stream crossings needed to be avoided. All available intelligence information would be collected on enemy routes of movement to aid in the choice of ambush sites. In many instances, the enemy avoided using obvious routes in order to keep from walking through likely ambush positions.
Noise, light and camouflage discipline had an extremely important effect on the chances for success of an ambush. A breach of any one of these could well jeopardize the success of the mission. A noisy, careless soldier in an ambush site is the only warning device the VC needed. The key to a successful ambush was surprise. The absence of stealth was a common error and often led to compromise of ambushes. Every precaution needed to be taken to avoid being observed by civilians, leaving signs, or giving any other indication of the patrolís presence when moving to an ambush location. The site would be reconnoitered in such a manner that the intention to use the site for an ambush was not disclosed. If the enemy was aware of the movement to the ambush position, chances of success were negligible.
All too frequently ambushes were well laid, properly planned, and correctly positioned, only to fail because of an oversight on the part of the ambush leader or one of his men. Some of the common deficiencies were as follows:
Thorough consideration of these factors increased the odds in favor of a successful ambush. Supervision and discipline were the keys.
Typical ambush formations used in Vietnam were; Linear, 'L' shaped, 'V' shaped and 'Pin Wheel'. These formations could be employed effectively as either deliberate ambushes or ambushes of opportunity.
Ambushes were often employed in defense of a hamlet. Small size ambushes, consisting of 4-6 men, were established outside of the hamlet to warn of the direction of an attack. These ambushes were usually located 500-1000 meters from each corner or side of the hamlet and on likely enemy avenues of approach. The positions would be varied and moved one or more times in order not to establish a recognisable pattern. In addition to these ambush positions, ambushes were also planned for inside the hamlet with a planned and well rehearsed course of action for each possible situation.
The concept of this plan is to force the VC into attempting a hasty withdrawal through the front gate. If the VC attacking force attempts to withdraw through the gate, the reserve force moves into an ambush position by the gate and, with artillery support, and support from the four man blocking force, will destroy them. If the enemy chooses to break out to their left the mines will stop them and they will be in a cross fire from the blocking and ambush forces. If the VC try to back out by returning through the breach in the wall they will be stopped by artillery and the outside ambush force which has maneuvered into position to cover the enemies egress. This type of ambush could be planned for any portion or corner of the hamlet. The Lessons Learned document suggests that a 12-man squad could combat a VC Platoon using this plan whilst Al Baker suggested that the lessons learned document was completely out of touch with the reality of these types of ambush, stating, "It just didn't work that way... "
Alternatively, if the enemy is approaching the hamlet gate directly it was possible to ambush him from within the hamlet by using a 'V' shaped ambush.
Two small ambush groups take position either side of the hamlet gateway so that if the enemy attempts to change the direction of their assault so as to attack on either side of the entranceway, they can be blocked and taken under fire.
The main ambush group sets up a 'V' shaped ambush within the hamlet and ambushes the enemy as he moves through the front gate. In this instance, the two small blocking forces can be turned to provide extra fire power into the enemies flank. Again, pre-plotted artillery concentrations can be brought down on the enemy rear so as to block egress from the killing zone.
Patrol reports drew attention to a technique used by the Viet Cong to determine the size and composition of patrols. Local villagers were used to count the number of men in a patrol both on departing and entering friendly positions; the direction of the patrolís movement was also reported. When the patrol size was reduced during the course of a patrol, the VC deduced that an ambush party had been positioned somewhere along their route.
A technique was devised by the USMC to make it more difficult for the enemy to notice if patrol elements had been dropped off at some intermediate position; covert insertion of ambush elements could best be accomplished by moving them into the ambushed area as part of a regular patrol.
First, the ambush elements would be dispersed throughout the larger patrol formation; the ambush element kept its radio antenna detached and was equipped and armed similar to other patrol members. The ambush party detached itself covertly from the patrol when in the desired ambush site. Since many ambushes were positioned after sundown, the darkness and surrounding foliage hide their maneuver from enemy observation. The next day another patrol would drop off a different element and pick up the other ambush party. Except for the first time, the patrol size remained constant, making it difficult for the enemy to notice that an element had been dropped off.
In search and clear operations, search forces would often establish stay-behind ambushes in areas where the enemy were most likely to return. These ambushes could be ambushes of opportunity or deliberate ambushes.
In this example, blocking forces are inserted to prevent the enemy from escaping the AO and then the objectives are approached and searched in a methodical manner by the area search forces. Following the search of certain objectives, a small stay-behind ambush force is left in place as the main search force moves off to it's next objective.
Should the enemy attempt to evade the main search force by doubling back to objectives which have already been searched they will be ambushed by the stay-behind ambush group left at the previously searched objective.
Point or area ambushes could be what were termed 'demolition' ambushes, deliberate or opportunity ambushes using mines in conjunction with assault and security elements. In this case, the demolition personnel are a part of the support element. There were a number of factors which were always considered in the planning of a demolition ambush;
In this example two electrically detonated explosive devices (60-mm or 81-mm Mortar shells or Claymores etc) are sited using 'parados' (this is a shield of excavated earth packed behind the explosive device and used to control the direction of the explosion as it occurs). The explosive devices are blown when the enemy enters the killing zone. Immediately following the explosion, the assault and support elements move forward to engage the remaining enemy. Security elements prevent any of the enemy from the head or rear of the formation from escaping.
The positioning of the ambush elements was flexible since they could also be placed behind the mines or on the flanks of the mines.
Al Baker wrote,
The principles which governed daylight ambush operations were also applicable to night ambushes. However, at night it was necessary to adopt certain modifications Whilst concealment is plentiful at night, observation is limited and fire is less accurate. It was necessary therefore to properly sight weapons in order to ensure that complete coverage of the killing zone was achieved. Weapon fields of fire were often fixed by stakes and positions were closer together than in daylight ambushes in order to better facilitate command and control.
Ambush positions would generally be occupied after dark and following, where possible, a daylight reconnaissance. Once the ambush was sprung then flares would be used to illuminate the killing zone. Infrared weapon sights as well as starlite scopes were often utilised so as to be able to view and identify enemy personnel and objects in the darkness and to make it possible to fire on appropriate targets.
For an example of a night ambush see After Action Report #1 which details an ambush carried out by 1st Squad, 2d Platoon, Company C, 2d Battalion, (Airmobile), 327th Infantry.
Ambushes launched from Waterways
In areas which were partially inundated with water, such as in the Delta, small boats were often used to position the ambush force and to conduct rapid pursuits or withdrawals from ambush sites. Boat-transported forces were not limited to laying waterway ambushes since they could operate in any area which was reasonably accessible by water.
Stealthy movement to the ambush position was achieved by using poles or paddles to propel the boat instead of motors although motors were fixed to the boats so that they could be used upon enemy contact. Boats could also be allowed to drift to position with the current or tidal flow. Small ambush parties were sometimes left behind when patrols stopped or and disembarked in order to observe or reconnoiter. Such a technique was only considered useful if the boat forces commonly operated with frequent halts and debarkations and if the stay-behind ambush party was small in comparison to the total force.
Whether the ambush was employed to cover a road, trail or waterway, the force normally debarked and took up concealed positions. The boat crewmen would remain in or near their craft, which were carefully concealed. The ambush security team leader was responsible for the security of the boats. The boat crewmen were placed under his control during occupation of the ambush site.
Because several hours of waiting were usually required at the ambush site, consideration had to be given to changes in both the level and direction of water flow. The ambush commander had to anticipate these changes and plan his ambush around them. Changes in the level of the water due to tides often required the relaying of weapons in a waterway ambush. At ebb tide, boats could be left stranded or some withdrawal routes become too shallow for use. All of these factors had to be considered in determining the location, time and method of ambush.
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