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Ambush Tactics
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Ambush Tactics
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An ambush of opportunity was one in which available information concerning the enemies activity did not permit planning or the establishment of an ambush at a specific point or in a specific area at a specific time. This type of ambush was normally employed when enemy forces were unaware of the presence of US forces and an ambush could be quickly established in order to surprise and destroy the unsuspecting enemy. The course of action which was followed was determined at the time the opportunity for the ambush arose. Units were continually and thoroughly trained in the techniques of rapidly establishing ambush positions. Also, patrols were often simply directed to move to a particular area, establish an ambush, and ambush the first profitable target that appeared.


Schematic representation of the ambush of opportunity

Composition of the Ambush Force

The ambush force was usually composed of an assault element, support element, and a security element.

The assault element captured or destroyed the enemy. It consisted of the commander, a killing group and a search party. The mission of the killing group was to kill or capture the enemy. The mission of the search party was to search the dead and wounded for documents, and to pick up weapons, ammunition and equipment.

Al Baker,

"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... "

The support element provided fire support for the assault element. This element was generally armed with machine guns and/or mortars and mines. The support element prevented the enemy from escaping through the front or rear of the killing zone. if a demolition team was to be employed it was always as a part of the support element.

Al Baker,

"We used lots of Claymore mines in the kill zone and to protect the security elements.  In a linear ambush I would built 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 security element protected the assault and support elements and covered the avenues of approach into the ambush site that the enemy may have tried to use in order to reinforce the ambushed force. The security element also covered the withdrawal of the assault and support elements as well as securing the rally point.

Appropriate Ambush Areas and Sites 

With regard to ambush areas, numerous night ambushes would be laid along railroads, roads, trails and waterways which the enemy had to use in order to approach hamlets and villages. these likely avenues of approach were often deduced if the required intelligence was not known. Sites for ambushes were often found in remote areas by a close study of the those locations where the enemy contacted the population as they were working in the fields. These ambushes would be set before dawn and prior to the arrival of the workers in the fields. Since the enemy had to leave his safe areas in order to enter populated areas, ambushes were also set along roads and trails anything up to 15-20 kilometers out from the perimeter of populated areas.

Once the area for ambush operations had been determined, the actual sites where then selected. Ambushes were most effective when the site selected confined the enemy to an area where he could be destroyed. natural obstacles were numerous in Vietnam for ambush positions, such as cliffs, streams, embankments, and narrow trails and roads with canals on either side.

Al Baker,

"Artillery barrages where planned to ambush sites to be fired after withdrawal to the rallying point.  It was to prevent pursuit of the ambushing forces and disrupt other forces... "

An indirect approach would be used to enter the ambush site, otherwise the enemy could possibly detect friendly movement and employ a counter ambush. At times the use of a circuitous route could involve three or four days march in order to reach the ambush site. A patrol could often find itself occupying an ambush site well ahead of the arrival of the target and in these circumstances patience was essential if secrecy, and hence security, was to be maintained. In some instances it was necessary for units to remain in ambush areas for a minimum of a week and often as long as a month.

Frequently the Viet Cong followed a patrol, waiting for the unit to make a mistake or for a chance to ambush from the rear. There were three recommended ways to counter this VC threat:

  • Drop a fire team or squad ambush on a prearranged signal.
  • Circle back on the patrol route forcing the VC to worry about his rear
  • Alter direction of movement every few hundred meters to confuse the enemy as to location and direction of movement of the patrol.


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 of ambushes.

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 negligible.

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.

Schematic representation of the defense of a Hamlet by use of ambush

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.

Schematic representation of defense of a Hamlet using 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 fire.

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 zone.

Stay-Behind Ambushes

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.

Schematic representation of 'stay behind' ambush in US Search and Sweep operation

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.

Demolition Ambushes

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.

Schematic representation of demolition or mechanical ambush

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... "

Night Ambushes

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.


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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