The NVA realised that small advance detachments could save casualties while facilitating victory by enhancing the shock of combat. The NVA found that sapper spearheads could pave the way for power raids or breakthrough assaults and also reduce casualties to the main body.
By infiltrating, or penetrating, enemy defences before a main assault force, and then attacking from within the enemy perimeter, the enemy would be forced to fight in two directions simultaneously. Or, if the penetration force was acting independently, their sudden appearance within a fortified position terrorised the defenders and dislocated their counteraction.
Most sappers were trained for six months – six times as long as the regular NVA infantryman's one month of training.
Sapper success depended on the training, experience, determination, and, most of all, focused concentration of the sapper unit and its leaders. Sappers approached their military art with serious dedication and controlled application.
Sapper platoons originally served with infantry battalions to clear obstacles and lead attacks on defensive positions. In the years following Tet in '68, the NVA virtually abandoned attempts to overrun US or ARVN positions by frontal attacks. An interim tactic during these years of rebuilding was to stage raids by sapper units.
To accomplish this, sapper platoons were combined into companies and battalions that operated independently from the infantry battalions. When the infantry units had a need for sappers, a unit of platoon size was attached for the specific mission.
Before formal acceptance into the sapper units, soldiers received as much as three months additional training at a special base near Son Tay, in North Vietnam, or on the job with their unit in the South. They learned how to move quietly, to penetrate bases surrounded by mines, barbed wire and detection devices, and how to use all types of explosives.
Sappers were regarded as an elite and the NVA emphasised specialised training as being very important to sapper performance.
Combat training consisted of pure assault pioneer course work; reconnaissance techniques, barrier and defence penetration, assault tactics, stealth, demolitions and the destruction of barriers, installations, logistics facilities and munitions dumps.
Sapper training itself was not extraordinary, the manoeuvre, execution and discipline of sapper units was what made the difference.
Because use of the explosive charge was the key to sapper effectiveness and because survival and success might well depend on competence with this weapon, demolition training was extensive. Sappers were taught to recognise, arm and disarm conventional explosives as well as those of local manufacture. Instruction included the characteristics and uses of detonators; the characteristics, properties, maintenance, and force of all available explosives; and the quantity and positioning of explosives required to destroy fences, buildings, bunkers, aircraft, fuel tanks, and munitions. Sappers were also instructed on the details of allied mines, flares, and booby traps, which they were taught to disarm, and convert to their own use.
The NVA Sapper Corps was an assault engineer combat arm trained to oppose a greater force with lesser strength, and to move in complete silence. Their primary mission was to erode the strength of allied forces by carrying out special missions. Usually preceded by infiltration/penetration, these special missions included: target destruction, command decapitation, sabotage, reconnaissance, close combat, ambush warfare and spearheading attacks.
Many sapper raids were independent operations, without participation by infantry or other forces. However, there were six primary ways that NVA sappers could be utilised:
Most Military Regions controlled at least one sapper battalion, early in the war. Sappers from that battalion were regularly attached to regional battalions for special operations. Few real sapper troops were organic to regional or provincial Viet Cong Main Force battalions. However, the NVA Sapper Corps was being constantly expanded from 1969 onward with COSVN converting several infantry battalions to sapper battalions and sapper training being given to all infantry units.
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