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
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 patrol’s 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
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:
- Noise discipline - coughing, talking, shifting about, clattering of equipment, etc.
- Springing the ambush too early or with a poor signal.
- Lack of sufficient firepower being placed in the killing zone
- Failure to pursue by fire when the enemy moves into the jungle.
- Failure to quickly exploit and search the immediate area for casualties.
- Failure to establish a preplanned search of the area.
- Failure to booby-trap or block the opposite side of the trail.
- Failure to block escape routes.
- Failure of ambush leaders to use supporting arms.
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
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
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 patrol’s
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 selecting the terrain, emphasis was often placed on siting the ambush along a path, trail or road bordered by woods,
brush, swamp, cuttings or water. Wherever possible, the ambush would be placed on a hill or curve since the enemy would be
slowed down when negotiating these features and therefore more vulnerable to fire.
- Wherever possible, prior to selecting the ambush site, intelligence information concerning the terrain and movement of
the target as well as his expected time of arrival, was critical.
- The types of mines, fragmentation charges and demolitions which were to be used had to be taken into account as
well as the laying of lines.
- Naturally, both the placement and the quantities of mines and explosives had to be given careful thought dependent on
the size and type of target being engaged.
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,
"They were also mechanical ambushes. Trip wire activated groups of Claymore mines.
Like booby traps these devices were very effective in areas where they was no civilian population. They were relatively
easy to disarm and disassemble. Set us similarly to the ring main the det cord and lead Claymore were battery detonated
using an electric blasting cap, the others were fired by no electric blasting caps crimped to det cord. The circuit
would be trip wire activated so it did not have to be attended... "
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.