US Army in Vietnam - Countering NVA and VC Ambushes; The Company in Movement


THE COMPANY IN MOVEMENT


The formation adopted which best served military movement over a diverse landscape was decided upon by a consideration of what the force commander was seeking to achieve: Security, Control and Concentration of fire power, without undue loss of time or personnel.

These considerations were not to be viewed as separate objectives since each impacted upon the others. Security and Control were desired so that fire concentration could be achieved at the critical time when nothing else counted more. This being the case it was generally held that the more complicated a formation and the more numerous it’s parts, the greater the danger that control would be lost in a moment of emergency, especially when moving over countryside which prohibited visual contact between the various elements of the formation.

WEDGE FORMATION

The ‘Wedge’, and its numerous variations, was the most widespread formation adopted by US rifle companies during advances into enemy territory, yet it was extremely difficult to control and possessed no inherent advantages in bringing fire power to bear quickly against any threatened quarter. In fact it had several built-in disadvantages.

The forward platoon in the center and the two platoons, right and left, each used a point, with scouts out. So there were never less than seven elements to control, which was several too many should the body have to reform suddenly to meet an assault from an unexpected direction.

Formed in this way, the company extended over a wider area than if the columns were more compact, though the advantage was marginal. The ‘Wedge’ neither strengthened security on the move nor favoured rapid and practical deployment for combat. If the formation should be hit from either flank, greater confusion would ensue than with a more simple formation. Should the enemy be set up and ready to fight on a broad front directly to the fore, all three columns were likely to become engaged before the commander had a chance to weigh-up whether full-scale involvement was desirable.

2-COLUMN FORMATION

However, the situation is very different when the company is making its approach march in 2-column formation (left).

The width between columns would be approximately equal to their length when the terrain permitted. If either column was hit from the flank and faced toward the fire, the other was automatically in place to serve as a reserve and protect against a turning maneuver. Further, if the advance guard (scouts and point) drew fire in volume, signifying the enemy’s determination to stand, the force was in a position to be either committed whole at once, or to fight on a narrower front with half of it’s strength while retaining a 50% reserve (see Fig.1 below).

When the enemy fire and the condition of the advance element permitted it, the scouts and point would displace to rearward as the company shifted to a line of skirmishers (see Fig. 2 below).

In this way the whole formation would not be drawn willy-nilly into a full-scale commitment, a disarrangement that occurred frequently in attacks upon fortified positions. In circumstances where the scouts or the men in the point became engaged and took casualties, the lead platoon would become scattered and disorganised in the effort to extricate them and the fire line thereafter gradually became reformed on ground too far forward, greatly to its disadvantage and harshly limiting the supporting air and artillery fires.

Fig. 1 Column Partially Committed Fig. 2 Column Fully Committed

COMBAT AGAINST ‘L’ SHAPED AMBUSHES

In the ‘L’ shaped ambush, the tactic gets it’s effects from an intensifying concentration of fire. The NVA/VC normally fought out of natural cover, and the flanking side usually ran parallel to a trail. The twin column company formation was far more properly disposed to cope with the threat than was the wedge or any other eccentric formation, particularly if it was moving with a few flankers out, a practice which should have been adopted whenever conditions permitted (Fig. 3 below).

The right-hand column, in the correct position, needed only to face right to engage. The left-hand column moved into line against the enemy force blocking the line of movement. The company CP was located according to the intensity of fire and the availability of cover (Fig. 4 below).

Fig. 3 Flank Security Fig.4 Maneuver against 'L' Shaped Ambush


So confronted, the enemy lost any initial advantages in fire or maneuver, and his problem of collecting forces to alter the terms of the engagement was probably more complex, since he had planned to execute a set piece.

NVA/VC reserves were usually placed to support the vertical bar of the ‘L’, with envelopment of the US force as the ultimate objective, and would be maneuvered in an attempt to block the US line of withdrawal. Usually this took the form of setting an ambush along the first stream or trail crossing in the immediate rear. Withdrawal over the same route used in advance was therefore to be avoided. The movement away from the ‘L’ ambush needed to be an oblique from the open flank where the enemy had not engaged.

Whether to accept line-against-line engagement was the prime question for the US force commander. Initially he may not have had an option because his position may have been weakened by early losses. At any stage it was preferable to maintain loose contact with the enemy whilst backing away with the main body as promptly as possible. At the same time the US force commander would call for maximum striking power against the enemy positions. The ‘L’ shaped ambush, by reason of its configuration, was an ideal target for artillery and Tac Air operating in combination. The vertical bar was the prime target for the artillery – gun-target line permitting – because it could be worked over with maximum economy and minimum shifting of the guns. The horizontal bar was the proper target mark for Tac Air because the boundaries of the run may be more readily marked manually when a withdrawal was perpendicular to the line of advance than when the strike parallels the line of advance and withdrawal.

AVOIDING AMBUSHES

NVA and VC ambushes were normally established on natural routes of movement such as trails and streams. Perhaps the best way of avoiding NVA and VC initiated ambushes was, as Al Baker, Company Commander, explained,

The ambush was my greatest concern. Giving the enemy the opportunity to sucker us into a killing zone. I avoided that by never giving him a terrain feature to ambush. I explained it to my soldiers, by asking them where we ambushed. We ambushed trails and so did the enemy. We never ambushed jungle, we set up on some terrain feature that would give us the opportunity to catch the enemy. So that's how we moved, never using an identifiable feature....

Enemy ambushes were conducted at all hours of the day and night however, the majority of ambushes occurred during daylight hours. Almost one-third of all NVA/VC ambushes occurred during the morning hours, at which time friendly troops were moving out from their base camps and NDP's to conduct daily operations. Often the NVA and VC set up ambushes behind US patrols after they had left their patrol base in order to ambush the patrol on it's return and there were many cases where patrols which retraced their routes were caught in ambushes at times when the patrol members were tired and security was lax.

In order to combat these tactics the US commanders often resorted to unusual and imaginative techniques, as described by Al Baker,

We would drop off stay behind patrols to try and catch followers. In one instance, when I couldn't catch the bastards following me, I picked up a platoon in helicopters. Moved across a big field, halted the company on the far side and reinserted the platoon on the near side. Then I caught the bastards in the middle...

AMBUSH INDICATORS

The observations and experiences of US troops revealed, over time, a number of ambush 'indicators' which, when encountered, gave the commander reason to tighten security and move with caution.

In particular, US commanders were well advised to take note of local intelligence and in particular reports of unknown units in the area as well as sightings of NVA and VC reconnaissance elements.


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SOURCE:

Military Operations; Vietnam Primer - Dept of the Army, 1967 by Brig.Gen. SLA Marshall (Ret.) & Lt.Col. David Hackworth (Ret.)

Al Baker, Commander B Co, 4/9 Inf, RVN '67 - '68


 

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