The development of ARVN armoured forces - Part 1.

Page Title - ARVN Armored Forces

Armor of the South Vietnamese Army, Part I

In 1950 the French created a small Vietnamese armored force. That year also saw the simultaneous establishment of an armor training section in the Vietnamese Military Academy at Dalat and a reconnaissance company equipped with M-8 armored cars, which were manned by French officers and Vietnamese enlisted men. In 1952, an armor school was set up at Thu Duc, northeast of Saigon, to train the future officers of the Vietnamese armored force. The basic training was taught using 178 vintage pre-World War One French Panhard armored cars. Upgraded training was offered at the Saumur Armor School in France. The 3rd Armored Regiment (3° Régiment Blindé Vietnamien) became operational in 1953. The regiment had a headquarters company and three reconnaissance companies that were equipped with M-8 reconnaissance armored cars, M-3 halftracks, M-3 scout cars, and M-8 howitzer transports. Four separate reconnaissance armored squadrons were also established, which were equipped with M-8 armored cars and M-3 scout cars. The Vietnamese armored units were used mainly for road security tasks and in support of anti-guerrilla operations.

M-8 armored car and M-3 half-track used mainly for convoy escort duty and static defense M-8 Howitzer Motor Carriage, until the introduction of the M-24 Chaffee, the ARVN's most impressive firepower vehicle
M-8 armored car and M-3 half-track M-8 Howitzer Motor Carriage

A South Vietnamese Armor Command, which also served as the office of the Chief of Armor, was established on 1 April 1955, and with the creation of the Republic of Vietnam in October it became a part of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). By late 1955, after the partition of Vietnam under the Geneva Accords, the armored force of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) in the south was expanded and an armored regiment was deployed in each of the four military regions. The equipment, all of it was of Second World War vintage, was inherited from the French and much of it was in poor condition. The principal AFVs were M24 Chaffee light tanks, M8 Greyhound armored cars, M3 half-tracks, M3 scout cars and M8 howitzer motor carriages. Unfortunately the combination of delapidated equipment, tactics that stressed defence, and the piecemeal commitment of AFVs limited the capabilities of the force to convoy escort and static defence of installations. In the latter role AFVs were reduced to the level of 'mobile' pillboxes.

With the arrival of American advisors in early 1956, the existing ARVN armored units were reorganized according to US precepts as Armored Cavalry Regiments (ACRs), each comprising two reconnaissance squadrons equipped with M-8 armored cars, M-3 half-tracks and M-3 scout cars, and one squadron of M24 Chaffees. The ARVN unit nomenclatures were retained from the French, whose designations were equated with fighting power rather than on the basis of personnel strength, the method used by the US Army. This meant that an ARVN "regiment" was equivalent in size to an American battalion or squadron.

From 1957 to 1962, the ARVN armored units played only a minor role in the conduct of the anti-guerrilla operations. Its squadrons were dispersed to assure security missions along the main roads, while the M-24 tank squadrons were trained to repulse an all-out conventional invasion from North Vietnam. During this period the Viet Minh, who had remained in South Vietnam since the Geneva Agreements, carried out terrorist attacks, established bases and created a widespread intelligence network and political infrastructure. In December 1960 the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam (NLF) was formed; ostensibly a coalition of disaffected parties against the autocratic rule of President Ngo Dinh Diem it was, in reality, under Communist control from Hanoi. Its military arm was to become known as the Viet Cong.

By late 1961, the military situation in South Vietnam was deteriorating quickly and the United States reacted by furnishing considerable military aid. The Viet Cong were moving at will throughout the country, and even threatened the approaches to Saigon.

Among the equipment delivered to the ARVN was a batch of M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs). The decision was made to introduce two company-sized units manned by rifle companies trained in mechanized infantry operations. Some 32 M-113s were delivered in April 1962 and were assigned to the 7th and 21st Infantry Divisions. Rather than being manned by well-trained troops, the new units were completed with men selected at random, and only armor personnel filled the key roles. The two units were designated 'mechanised rifle companies' and were formed with 15 APCs apiece. They were subsequently redesignated the 7th and 21st Mechanised Rifle Companies. Each company was organized as follows:

  • three rifle platoons with three M113s in each platoon;

  • a support platoon with four M-113s, which carried between them three 60mm mortars, and three 3.5-inch rocket launchers;

  • company headquarters section with two M-113s, one for the company commander and one for maintenance personnel.

All APCs were equipped with a .50 calibre machine gun, and eighteen .30 calibre Browning automatic rifles were distributed throughout the company.

Since only the driver and commander of each M113 were drawn from armor personnel and the riflemen lacked combat experience, their initial training period was extended from six weeks to nine. The two units were put into the field for the first time on 11th June 1962. The High Command decided to deploy them in the Mekong Delta to protect Route 4, the vital 'Rice Route' into Saigon.

As with almost any new organization, the units' first engagements reflected their lack of experience - the Battle of Ap Bac 1 illustrated this. These early operations provoked a great deal of unfavourable comment about the alleged inadequacies of the M-113. Early operations were conducted in conjunction with troops of the Civil Guard - provincial soldiers of mediocre quality - and directed by a higher command with no knowledge of armored tactics. Many commanders tended to employ the APC merely as a substitute for a truck, failing to exploit its mobility, shock action and firepower. In consequence, initial results were disappointing. Gradually, however, the two mechanised rifle companies gained experience through daily operations against the enemy.

The situation continued to improve as the units acquired experience and between 11 June and 30 September 1962, the two companies killed 502 Viet Cong and took 184 prisoners at a cost to themselves of four dead and nine wounded. This success was further enhanced by the results obtained when the company attached to the 7th Infantry Division was sent to operate in the Plain of Reeds, and elsewhere in the Delta, demonstrated the effectiveness of the APC as a fighting vehicle-as opposed to its use merely for transporting infantry to the objective. The M113 had been designed as a 'battlefield taxi' following American doctrine that mechanised troops dismount and assault an objective on foot but operational experience revealed that dismounting infantry prior to closing on a VC position resulted in the loss of momentum, drastically reducing the mobility of ARVN forces and sacrificing armor protection, observation and shock-action effect. Henceforth, ARVN mechanised troops habitually fought from their carriers, only dismounting when an enemy position had been overrun and then only to ensure that a thorough and complete search of the area was made. Contrary to the prescribed rules, which indicated that the soldiers riding in the APCs had to dismount to fight, the ARVN commanders fought with their men firing from the hatches of the vehicles. This tactic transformed the M-113 into a real battle tank against the lightly armed guerrillas. The Americans later adopted this technique.

By the end of October, the two companies had killed 517 Viet Cong and captured 203, at a cost to themselves of only four dead and 13 wounded. Such impressive statistics did much to assuage the Vietnamese political establishment, which put a high premium on holding down casualties in men and equipment. Any commander incurring heavy losses was liable to immediate dismissal, a fact that hardly engendered an aggressive spirit. Much of the psychological shock effect generated by the use of M113s in areas previously denied to government forces was therefore negated by the temerity of commanders who feared losing vehicles and equipment in sustained actions against the VC. Operations rarely lasted longer than two or three days.

The success of these first two ARVN mechanized companies (now called Mechanised Rifle Squadrons) in demonstrating the value of highly maneuvrable, lightly armored vehicles in Vietnam, led to the formation of six additional M113 squadrons and four reconnaissance squadrons equipped with the M114 Command and Reconnaissance Vehicle. The ARVN Armor Command insisted that armor personnel, however, evaluate the M-113s and the APCs were sent to the Armored School at Thu Duc. Finally, it was decided to place all the APC units under the Armor Command. The first two M113 companies were re-designated the 4th and 5th Mechanized Rifle Squadrons of the 2nd ACR and assigned to the IV Corps Tactical Zone, based at My Tho in the Mekong Delta.

M-114 Command and Reconnaissance Vehicle of 4th Armored Cavalry Regiment, 1963
M-114 Command and Reconnaissance Vehicle

The armored cavalry regiments supporting each of the four tactical zones were reorganized in late 1962 with the addition of one armored reconnaissance squadron and two mechanized rifle squadrons. M-113s for the new squadrons arrived in late 1962 and the squadrons became operational as they completed training at the ARVN Armor School. By May 1963, each of the four regiments had one squadron each of M-24 tanks, M-8 armored cars, M-114s, and two mechanized rifle squadrons with M-113s. The only exception was the 2nd ACR, which had no tank squadron but an additional M-113 squadron.

Mechanized rifle squadrons were organised like their predecessors, the mechanised rifle companies, except for the supporting weapons. During 1962 the 3.5-inch rocket launcher and the 60mm mortar were judged as being unsatisfactory because of their limited range. Each newly organised squadron was equipped therefore with three 81mm mortars and a single 57mm recoilless rifle, all transported in armored personnel carriers.

The reconnaissance squadron comprised a headquarters of two M114s; three reconnaissance troops, each equipped with six M114s in two three-carrier sections; and an additional element of 1/4-ton trucks. A total of 80 M114s were acquired to equip the four reconnaissance squadrons that served in 1st to 4th Armored Cavalry Regiments. The M114 quickly proved to be an unsound vehicle. Underpowered, mechanically unreliable and with marginal amphibious capability, it proved unable to negotiate the same terrain as the M113, and its resistance to mine damage was very weak. Even a moderate sized mine would literally blow the vehicle in half. The failure of the M114 led to its replacement by the M113 by November 1964.

The M113 meanwhile was found to be an outstanding vehicle, capable of cross-country movement previously unrealised in many areas of the Republic. In the Delta the principal obstacles to APC movement were the numerous irrigation canals and rivers. Various techniques were devised for canal crossing and vehicle recovery, among them the use of push-bars, demolition, brush-fill, block and tackle, multiple tows and expedients for self-recovery such as the capstan and anchor.

The surviving M3 half-tracks were progressively withdrawn from service. Some of them served as support vehicles, modified locally with cranes, or as wreck and barrier removal vehicles. Others ended their career in security platoons for convoy escort missions. For this last task, the ARVN ordnance depots had also modified various vehicles with varying degrees of success. For example, several trucks were armored and equipped with .30 and .50 calibre machine guns. Some Canadian 15-cwt GM C15TA trucks of World War Two vintage were also armored and turned into locally built armored reconnaissance cars. With the surviving M3 scout cars, they served mainly with the service support units and regional and provincial forces. The ARVN also bought a small number of Canadian Ford Lynx Scout Car MKIIs from Malaysia. They had served with the Commonwealth forces during the Emergency of 1948-60 and were also put into service for convoy escort duty.

Next Page


Vietnam Tracks, Armor in Battle 1945-75, Simon Dunstan, Osprey Publishing Ltd., 1982, ISBN 0-85045-472-7
Armor of the Vietnam War (2), Albert Grandolini, Concord Publications Cpy., 1998, ISBN 962-361-622-8
Armored Combat in Vietnam, General Donn A. Starry, Blandford Books Ltd., 1981, ISBN 0-7137-1166-3


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