US Army in Vietnam - Typical Ambush Formations Adopted (Schematics)

Page Title - US Ambush Operations
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Schematic representation of linear ambush

In this ambush formation, maximum use is made of terrain features which block the enemies escape from the killing zone. Security elements guard the flanks of the assaulting and support elements so that even if the lead and tail elements of the enemy force are outside of the killing zone and attempt to flank the assault force they will be engaged.

Al Baker wrote,

In a linear ambush I would build 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 Point and Ambushes

The North Vietnamese Army’s tactic of ambushing the point unit of a rifle company was extremely effective, and unless immediate action was taken by the friendly unit, heavy casualties could result. If the enemy chose to stand and fight after springing an ambush, supporting arms would usually be used. If the enemy retreated, that was normally the end of the encounter because of the extreme difficulty in conducting a pursuit in dense jungle. In any event, the point squad leader had be able to relay to the company commander, via the platoon leader, an accurate estimate of the situation. Fire superiority had to be gained as soon as possible by the point element. Though this may appear difficult, small arms fire, LAW’s, M- 79’s, and hand-grenades fired in the direction of the enemy would usually do the job. By the time fire superiority was gained, the platoon leader would be up front communicating with the company commander concerning his estimate of the situation. As most ambushes of this nature took place at extremely close ranges, the leading elements usually had to withdraw a considerable distance if supporting arms were to be employed.

Before moving into an area where an ambush was likely, it was a good idea to consider the following:

  • Brief the point in detail of what actions were to be taken upon ambush include details on when to commence the attack or withdrawal in countering the ambush.
  • Inform supporting arms of the patrol route and plan concentrations on likely trouble spots.
  • Always know the location of the point so no time was lost in adjusting supporting arms.
  • Have a workable casualty evacuation system.
  • Consider having the point reconnoiter danger areas by fire. This usually caused NVA units to flee or spring the ambush prematurely.


Schematic representation of L-shaped ambush

In the 'L' shaped ambush the head of the enemy force takes fire from both front it's front and flank whilst the rest of the enemy element is engaged along it's length. Note the use of three security elements which guard all flanks of the ambush position.

Al Baker wrote,

We used lots of Claymore mines in the kill zone and to protect the security elements. 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.

Delta Mike 2,

"... we used the 'L', with the MG at the short end of the 'L', shooting down the length of the enemy unit and almost always used at roads and trails... "



Schematic representation of V-shaped ambush

In this ambush formation maximum fire is delivered against the head of the enemy force.


Schematic representation of Pin-Wheel ambush

The Pin-Wheel formation is essentially a combination of two 'V' formations and could be employed at road or trail junctions, or in jungle areas. In this formation the enemy can approach from any direction and still be ambushed. Where an element has it's 'back' to the enemies line of approach then the ambushing force turns alternating troops in the element to engage the enemy (as in the South west and North West arms of the wheel in the diagram above).

In order to provide effective and secure Command and Control, as well as Support in all directions, the CP and Support Element are deployed in the center of the ambush position.

It has been pointed out by a number of Veterans that this particular formation may well have looked good on paper but was, in their experience, never used and particularly dangerous and likely to cause friendly fire casualties;

Delta Mike 2 wrote,

"I can say this right away; I am glad that I never saw a pin-wheel ambush in use! It looks like a bad, bad, bad accident waiting to happen! Too much high velocity lead and other lethal stuff flying about addressed 'Return to Sender' in addition to whatever the gooks managed to deal out.

The pin-wheel ambush had to designed by some lifer fighting from behind a desk in the Pentagon. It is one of the better pieces of Vietnam fantasy that I have ever come across."

Al Baker, B Company Commander, 4/9 Infantry, wrote,

"I never saw a pin wheel and never hope to. Especially in limited visibility you need to do all you can to prevent fratricide. So you never want friendly fire going in the direction of friendly forces. Our bullets will kill our troops the same as enemy fire..." 


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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

See also;

The full texts of both Al Baker and 'Delta Mike 2' regarding US Ambushes as detailed in Lessons Learned No. 39


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