Những ý tưởng ban đầu của cuộc Tổng tiến công Xuân 1975 được vạch ra
trong hai cuộc hội nghị quân sự cấp cao tháng Ba và tháng Tư năm 1974. Hai
hội nghị này cho rằng QĐND đã giành quyền chủ động chiến trường kể từ chiến
dịch Quảng Trị 1972. Sau hiệp định Pa-ri, đường Hồ Chí Minh đã không còn bị
Mỹ không kích, miền Bắc đã chuyên chở được một số lượng lớn hàng tiếp tế và
trang bị vào miền Nam.
Sau hội nghị, Bộ Tổng tham mưu QĐND soạn Dự thảo kế hoạch đánh thắng cuộc
chiến tranh ở miền Nam trình lên vị Tổng tư lệnh huyền thoại của họ, tướng
Võ Nguyên Giáp. Sau khi cân nhắc kĩ, ngày 18-7-1974, tướng Giáp triệu tập
tướng Hoàng Văn Thái, ra lệnh chính thức xây dựng kế hoạch chiến dịch bảo
đảm Toàn thắng ở miền Nam trong năm 1976. Quan điểm của tướng Giáp là tiến
hành chiến dịch tiến công gồm hai giai đoạn, trước hết là một trận then chốt
do quân chủ lực đánh vào cao nguyên Trung phần, tiếp theo là một cuộc Tổng
công kích vào lực lượng phòng thủ Sài Gòn.
Ngày 26-8-1974, sau khi chỉnh sửa, Bộ Tổng tham mưu QĐND đệ trình văn bản
với tên gọi “Kế hoạch chiến lược hai năm 1975-1976” lên các lãnh tụ của Đảng
và quân đội. Cuối cùng, nó được phê duyệt trong phiên họp của Bộ Chính trị
Cho dù quyền chủ động chiến trường đã thuộc về họ, bản Kế hoạch chiến
lược này khá thận trọng. Các nỗ lực xây dựng lại lực lượng du kích ở nông
thôn gặp khó khăn, cơ sở chính trị ở thành thị chưa hồi phục, chưa xây dựng
được kho tàng cho vũ khí, đạn dược hạng nặng tạo hỏa lực tiến công đủ mạnh
cho quân chính quy. Tuy nhiên, các nhà lãnh đạo miền Bắc vẫn thấy triển vọng
trong khoảng vài năm cho cơ hội giành toàn thắng trước khi Hoa Kỳ hồi sức
lại, sau những bê bối sân nhà. Còn QĐND thì hiểu rằng họ vẫn phải luôn sẵn
sàng đương đầu với can thiệp từ bên ngoài! Các chỉ thị cốt lõi của tướng
Giáp vẫn bao hàm yêu cầu đối với các lực lượng vũ trang miền Bắc phải đề
phòng khả năng Mỹ khởi động lại guồng máy không kích, hoặc tiến hành đổ bộ
lên Vịnh Bắc Bộ. Từ phân tích trên, Bộ Tổng tham mưu QĐND cho rằng, quân đội
của họ sẽ không thể tiến hành một cuộc “tổng tiến công và nổi dậy” như thời
kì Xuân Mậu Thân, khi còn một số lượng đông đảo du kích các vùng nông thôn
và đô thị tham chiến. Cũng không còn nguồn tiếp viện như trước để tiến hành
một cuộc tiến công ồ ạt theo bài bản của chiến tranh qui ước, như đã làm vào
Viện trợ quân sự của Liên Xô và Trung Quốc đã giảm cực kì đối với hạng
mục vũ khí tiến công-thiết giáp và pháo, kể từ hiệp định Pa-ri. Sự thiếu hụt
về tăng-thiết giáp và trọng pháo mà QĐND cần để tấn công các căn cứ cấp binh
đoàn của quân đội Việt Nam cộng hòa làm các nhà lập kế hoạch trong Bộ Tổng
tham mưu cộng sản vô cùng băn khoăn. Nhiều đơn vị pháo binh miền Nam (Quân
giải phóng) chỉ trang bị súng cối hạng nhẹ, súng không giật (ĐKZ) hoặc ống
phóng hoả tiễn vác vai (B40). Cả bảy sư đoàn và khung Quân đoàn 4 của miền
Nam chỉ có năm tiểu đoàn pháo, trong đó hai tiểu đoàn trang bị pháo đoạt
được của Mỹ vì thế rất ít đạn dược, cùng ba tiểu đoàn thiếu bộ đội thiết
giáp. (Xin lưu ý rằng Quân đoàn 2 lúc tiến vào Sài Gòn cuối tháng 4-1975
cũng chỉ có 89 tăng và thiết giáp chở quân, cùng 87 cỗ pháo). Đạn dược là
rất gay go của QĐND, thiếu nhất là đạn cho tăng và pháo ...
Cho dù dự thảo Kế hoạch chiến lược nói trên tỏ ra thận trọng, nó vẫn cực
kì tham vọng. Mục tiêu tổng quát của nó là nhằm kiến tạo bằng mọi biện pháp
cái mà QĐND vẫn gọi là thời cơ chiến lược. Đó có thể là một cuộc binh biến,
một bạo động chính trị dẫn tới lật đổ chính quyền Sài Gòn, hay một trận
thắng của QĐND Việt Nam có ý nghĩa quyết định chiến trường. Kế hoạch cũng
tiên liệu sao cho, bất luận thời cơ trên xuất hiện lúc nào, dưới hình thức
gì, các lực lượng vũ trang của họ phải lập tức được điều động vào đòn tổng
công kích quyết liệt nhằm giành toàn thắng trong thời gian ngắn nhất, trước
khi các thế lực can thiệp từ bên ngoài (...) kịp phản ứng.
… Tháng Chạp 1974, Sư đoàn 304 của QĐND Việt Nam đánh chiếm căn cứ Thượng
Đức ở vùng núi phía tây Đà Nẵng và bẻ gãy loạt trận phản kích quyết liệt của
hai sư đoàn thượng thặng của Việt Nam cộng hòa là Sư đoàn 3 và sư đoàn lính
Có hai thành tố quyết định trong sự thăng hoa về chiến lược dẫn QĐND đến
toàn thắng, đồng thời cũng là những điều các nhà dùng binh kinh điển thường
chỉ ra: đó là thời và nhân.
… Mồng 6 tháng Giêng các Sư đoàn 3 và 7 đánh chiếm tỉnh lị Phước Long,
đoạt thêm 10.000 viên đạn pháo nữa. Sài Gòn không thấy có động tĩnh gì về
chuyện tái chiếm Phước Long. Còn người Mỹ răn đe bằng cách cho tàu chở máy
bay Enterprise tiến về vùng biển Nam Việt Nam. Mối đe dọa này cũng bay biến
khi En-tơ-prai-xơ (Enterprise) quay mũi trở lại đại dương sau đó.
Chiến thắng Phước Long thức tỉnh ban lãnh đạo Bắc Việt rằng bản Kế hoạch
chiến lược là quá ư thận trọng. Đánh giá của Bộ Chính trị về khả năng Mỹ
không can thiệp trở lại tỏ ra chính xác, nhược điểm trong hệ thống phòng thủ
của quân đội VNCH cũng bộc lộ rõ. Một điều nữa vô cùng quan trọng là giải
pháp khắc phục thiếu hụt đạn dược cũng đã được tìm ra: đánh chiếm các kho
dạn dược lớn của Sài Gòn ...
Mồng 9 tháng Giêng 1975, hai ngày sau khi Kế hoạch chiến lược mới được Bộ
Chính trị thông qua, Quân ủy Trung ương họp, đề ra các mục tiêu của chiến
dịch Tây Nguyên: Tiêu diệt từ bốn đến năm trung đoàn bộ binh, một đến hai
chiến đoàn thiết giáp của đối phương, đánh thiệt hại nặng Quân đoàn 2 Sài
Giải phóng các tỉnh Đắc Lắc, Phú Bổn, Quảng Đức, lấy tỉnh lị Buôn Ma
Thuột làm trọng điểm của chiến dịch.
Nếu thời cơ xuất hiện, phát triển tiến công lên phía Bắc giải phóng
Plei-cu và Kon Tum, hay xuống phía đông chiếm Phú Yên, Khánh Hòa …
Nhờ mạng lưới tình báo tuyệt vời của mình, Hà Nội biết chắc rằng Sài Gòn
không hay biết gì về mục tiêu chính yếu của họ. Hà Nội cũng hiểu rằng không
thể bảo đảm bí mật tuyệt đối cho việc tiếp tế ồ ạt và công tác chuẩn bị
chiến trường ở quy mô lớn đến như vậy. Vì thế họ đã triển khai một chiến
dịch nghi binh cực kì tinh vi, tương kế tựu kế đánh vào một trong những điểm
mạnh nhất của quân Sài Gòn cùng đồng minh Hoa Kỳ: đó chính là mạng trinh sát
điện tử và thám không vô cùng hiện đại. Sóng điện của các đơn vị QĐND sẽ
tham chiến tuyệt đối im lặng, còn các báo vụ viên thì đánh đi hàng trăm bức
điện vô tuyến giả mạo. Họ còn làm những con đường ma, hoặc cố tình cơ động
các đoàn xe về phía Plei-cu và Kon Tum để thuyết phục Sài Gòn rằng hai thành
phố này được chọn làm quyết chiến điểm. Kịch bản này hiệu quả đến mức các tư
lệnh quân đội VNCH làm ngơ hàng loạt báo cáo về việc Buôn Ma Thuột mới chính
là mục tiêu của chiến dịch…
Sau loạt đòn tiến công trên khắp miền Nam, rạng sáng 10-3-1975, 12 trung
đoàn QĐND bất ngờ tiến công Buôn Ma Thuột. Sau 32 giờ chiến đấu, QĐND đã
chiếm hoàn toàn căn cứ và bắt sống viên Phó tư lệnh Sư đoàn 23. Họ đoạt thêm
được 12 cỗ pháo và 100 tấn đạn dược. Hà Nội hiểu rằng thời cơ chiến lược đã
Hồi trống trận mà đối phương dóng lên ở khắp miền Nam làm những người
đứng đầu chế độ Sài Gòn choáng váng. Tổng thống Thiệu trong lúc rối ren,
tuyệt vọng liên tiếp đưa ra những mệnh lệnh khốc hại.
Thứ nhất, sư đoàn lính
dù vốn là nền tảng của tấm lá chắn phía Bắc được rút về be chắn Sài Gòn, nơi
mà Thiệu cho là sắp sửa bị tràn ngập bởi đợt sóng thần Tổng tiến công. Tuyến
phòng thủ Huế-Đà Nẵng kể từ đó khấp khểnh như răng bừa cũ.
Lệnh thứ hai, là
tái chiếm Buôn Ma Thuột “bằng mọi giá”. Vì mọi con đường đến nơi này đã
đóng, hai trung đoàn còn lại của Sư đoàn 23 đành đổ bộ bằng trực thăng xuống
bãi đáp trống trải ở phía Đông Buôn Ma Thuột. Họ bị ném vào hỏa ngục-vì Sư
đoàn 10 của Việt Cộng vừa thắng trận Đức Lập về đã ém sẵn, với đầy đủ tăng
pháo. Trận hiệp đồng binh chủng kiểu chớp nhoáng (blitzkrieg) đã xoá sổ
những gì còn lại của Sư đoàn 23 bạc mệnh, cùng với chiến đoàn biệt động quân
số 21. Ngày tận thế cũng đến ngay sau đó với những đơn vị cạn kiệt lương
thảo và quân dụng còn ở lại Tây Nguyên. Thiệu muốn cứu họ bằng cách cho mở
đường máu rút qua tỉnh lộ 7B duy nhất còn lại, nhưng lại đưa họ vào vòng ôm
của tử thần đợi sẵn trên con đường chật hẹp và tồi tàn này.
Ngay sau đó tướng Giáp lệnh cho Quân đoàn 2 cho hai Sư đoàn 324 và 325
vòng qua tuyến phòng thủ của quân Sài Gòn trên các cao điểm gần Huế, đánh
thốc xuống vùng ven biển cắt quốc lộ I, ngăn chặn không cho các đơn vị rút
chạy của Việt Nam cộng hòa có thể co cụm lại để củng cố lực lượng. Thế chia
cắt lại hình thành, các đơn vị vùng chiến thuật I Việt Nam cộng hòa lần lượt
bị bóp vụn. Huế, rồi Đà Nẵng thất thủ vô cùng chóng vánh.
Trong cuộc họp lịch sử của Bộ Chính trị vào 18-3-1975, tướng Giáp thông
báo rằng thời cơ chiến lược mong đợi bấy lâu đã đến, nay là lúc QĐND Việt
Nam tung ra một cuộc tổng công kích trên toàn chiến trường, nhằm đánh đổ chế
độ miền Nam trước cuối năm 1975. Bộ Chính trị lập tức phê chuẩn đề xuất này
Quyết định này đã kết liễu cuộc chiến tranh. Giấy báo tử đề ngày
30-4-1975, nhưng số phận của chế độ Sài Gòn thực ra đã được định đoạt từ
18-3. Chiến thắng cuối cùng của tướng Giáp đồng thời là thắng lợi gây đổ máu
ít nhất cho các bên.
North Vietnam’s Final Offensive: strategic endgame nonpareil
Merle L. Pribbenow
From Parameters, Winter 1999-2000, pp. 58-71.
Almost a quarter century ago, a third world country won the final battle of a
long and difficult war through the use of an unexpected and decidedly modern
strategy. The tutorial embodied in this victory is worth remembering today, in
an age when there is a tendency to rely more on technology than on strategy and
to assume that our enemy's strategic skills are as backward as his nation's
economy, social structure, and technological base.
On 4 March 1975, the Communist People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) launched the
final campaign of its 30-year war with an attack on South Vietnamese positions
in the Mang Yang Pass in the Central Highlands. The PAVN offensive, which ended
in total victory less than two months later, was unlike any other in the war's
long history. The difference? For the first time, PAVN's campaign strategy was
not based primarily on the demonstrated willingness of its troops to die in
greater numbers than those of its opponents. Moreover, it paid only lip service
to the old dogma of a popular uprising. The PAVN campaign relied instead on
deception, diversion, surprise, an indirect approach, and alternate
objectives--in short, a highly cerebral strategy. PAVN finally mounted a
campaign worthy of the modern, professional army the Vietnamese communist
leadership worked so long to build.
Many historians maintain that given the massive reductions in US military aid
to South Vietnam after 1973, any major communist offensive was bound to succeed.
The Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) which confronted PAVN in early 1975,
however, was no paper tiger. While ARVN suffered from serious morale and
logistics problems, and much of its leadership was abysmal, ARVN's soldiers were
hardened veterans, and South Vietnam still maintained vast stockpiles of
ammunition and equipment (as demonstrated by the massive quantities of war
materiel captured by the North Vietnamese when the war ended). The final
collapse of the South Vietnamese army may well have been inevitable, but the end
would have been much bloodier and much longer in coming had the communists
chosen a more direct, conventional plan of attack. In fact, the most damaging
blow of the entire communist campaign may have been the crushing psychological
blow their skillful and unexpected strategy dealt to the mind of ARVN's
The following account, drawn primarily from Vietnamese communist sources, is
the story of the evolution of the PAVN campaign strategy. Unfortunately, the
Vietnamese communists have not opened their military archives to an independent
examination of the contemporaneous records of their 1975 campaign, nor have they
allowed Western historians to conduct the kind of frank, open interviews of
participants in these events necessary for a truly complete and balanced
history. It was therefore necessary to base this account largely on histories
and memoirs approved by the Vietnamese communist regime (although one of the
primary sources, the memoirs of Lieutenant General Tran Van Tra, was not only
officially disapproved, it was confiscated and banned by the regime immediately
after publication because of Tra's blunt criticisms of senior North Vietnamese
officers, especially Chief of Staff General Van Tien Dung). While a diligent
effort was made to filter out self-serving and propagandistic elements contained
in the various communist accounts and to check these accounts against available
historical records, it must be acknowledged that some aspects of their version
of events must be taken with several grains of salt.
The seeds of the 1975 communist offensive were planted during two high-level
military conferences held in Hanoi in March and April 1974 to review the
military situation. These conferences concluded that PAVN had regained the
initiative in the South for the first time since the 1972 Easter Offensive.
Following the January 1973 Paris cease-fire agreement, PAVN had greatly expanded
its logistics lifeline to the South, the Ho Chi Minh Trail. With the trail
complex no longer subject to US air attacks, North Vietnam was shipping massive
quantities of supplies and equipment southward--80,000 tons of military supplies
in 1973 alone, including 27,000 tons of weapons, 6,000 tons of petroleum
products, and 40,000 tons of rice. One hundred thousand fresh PAVN troops had
marched down the trail to the South during 1973, and another 80,000 were on
their way south during the first half of 1974. PAVN's troop strength in the
South, decimated by the 1972 Easter offensive, now stood at its highest level of
the war--400,000 full-time soldiers. PAVN could now see its own light at the
end of the tunnel. The problem it faced was how to get there.
Following the March and April meetings, in May the General Staff in Hanoi
completed a draft study titled, "Outline Study of a Plan to Win the War in the
South." This study was forwarded to PAVN's Commander-in-Chief, the legendary
General Vo Nguyen Giap, for review. On 18 July 1974, after carefully evaluating
this outline, General Giap called in his senior deputy, General Hoang Van Thai,
and issued orders for the preparation of a full-fledged campaign plan aimed at
securing total victory in the South by the end of 1976. Giap's overall concept
was for a two-stage offensive consisting of a major attack by main-force
regulars in the Central Highlands followed by an all-out assault against the
defenses of Saigon. (While most historians assert that Giap played little or
no role in the 1975 attack, claiming that he had by this time been reduced to
mere figurehead status by illness and the failures of his 1968 and 1972
offensives, North Vietnamese accounts describe Giap as being very much involved
in the planning and overall command of the offensive from its inception through
its final victorious conclusion.) On 26 August 1974, after ripping up a
number of earlier drafts, the General Staff completed the "Strategic Plan for
1975-76" and circulated it to senior party and military leaders for comments.
The finished plan was finally presented to party leaders for approval at a
lengthy Politburo session in October 1974.
Even though PAVN knew it had regained the strategic initiative in South
Vietnam, the General Staff's initial plan was quite cautious because PAVN still
had to contend with a number of serious problems. Communist efforts to
rebuild the Viet Cong's rural guerrilla base had largely failed, reaching only
30 percent of the 1973-74 plan's troop strength goals for local armed forces in
the South. Also, the communist urban political base was still very weak,
and--most important--PAVN's regular forces were facing serious shortages of
heavy weapons and ammunition. In addition, while the North Vietnamese
leadership believed it had a window of opportunity of several years to seek
victory before the United States recovered from its own domestic turmoil, PAVN
believed it must still be on guard against possible foreign intervention.
Giap's original instructions included the requirement that PAVN forces in North
Vietnam be prepared for the possibility that the offensive might provoke a
renewal of US bombing of North Vietnam or even a hostile amphibious landing on
the North Vietnamese coast. The General Staff decided that given these
problems, PAVN could not mount a Tet 1968-style nationwide "general offensive
and uprising" using large numbers of rural and urban guerrillas (which it did
not have), nor did it have the resources to conduct a massive nationwide
conventional attack along the lines of the 1972 Easter Offensive.
The deficiencies of PAVN's armored and heavy artillery forces, which were
essential for attacks on heavily fortified ARVN regimental and divisional base
camps, weighed heavily on the minds of the General Staff planners who drew up
the plan presented to the Politburo in October 1974. Much attention has focused
on the role ARVN's ammunition shortages played in the collapse of South Vietnam,
but it is not generally known that PAVN suffered similar shortages. Soviet and
Chinese military aid, especially in the category of "offensive weapons" (armor
and artillery), had declined significantly since the Paris cease-fire.
PAVN's massive losses during the 1972 Easter Offensive exacerbated the shortages
caused by these aid reductions. Also, much of PAVN's armor and artillery was in
poor condition, and spare parts were in short supply. Most PAVN artillery
units, especially in the South, were still equipped only with light mortars,
recoilless rifles, or single-tube rocket launchers. In the COSVN (Central Office
for South Vietnam) area of operations, consisting of the southern half of the
country, seven infantry divisions (the 3d, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th) and
one corps headquarters (4th Corps) were supported by only five battalions of
field artillery, two of which were equipped with captured US-made weapons for
which there was little ammunition, and three understrength armored
battalions. PAVN's 2d Corps, with three artillery regiments belonging to its
three infantry divisions, a corps artillery brigade, a tank brigade, and a
separate armored battalion, could field a grand total of only 89 tanks and
armored personnel carriers and 87 towed artillery pieces when it set off to
attack Saigon in April 1975.
The most critical problem, however, was an acute shortage of ammunition for
PAVN's tanks and heavy artillery (i.e., field artillery and mortars 85mm or
larger in caliber). During their 1972 offensive communist forces had fired more
than 220,000 rounds of tank and heavy artillery ammunition, with 150,000 rounds
having been used on the Quang Tri front alone. By 1974, PAVN's entire stock
of heavy artillery and tank ammunition, including all ammunition held by combat
units at forward warehouses, and in North Vietnam's strategic reserves, totaled
just 100,000 rounds. The ammunition problem was so serious that the PAVN
artillery command had to replace the larger weapons in a number of units with
obsolete 76.2mm and 57mm artillery pieces drawn out of storage for which there
still was adequate ammunition.
Because of these problems, the PAVN High Command decreed that all remaining
heavy equipment and ammunition be carefully husbanded for one decisive push, to
be launched only when a decisive opening finally arrived. The 1975-76 plan
allowed for the expenditure of only a little over ten percent of PAVN's
remaining artillery ammunition stocks during the entire 1975 campaign.
Forty-five percent of the remaining ammunition was allotted for the 1976
campaign, with the rest to be held in reserve.
Although the October plan was cautious, it was also extremely opportunistic.
The plan's overall goal was to create, by any means possible, what PAVN called a
"strategic opportunity." This strategic opportunity might be a military coup in
Saigon, a political upheaval resulting in the collapse of the South Vietnamese
government, or a decisive military victory won by PAVN main force units.
Whenever and however the strategic opportunity appeared, the plan called for all
communist forces to move immediately and decisively to exploit the opportunity
by launching an all-out offensive aimed at securing total victory in the
shortest time possible before "countries inclined towards intervention," meaning
primarily the United States and China, had time to react.
The offensive plan for 1975 was divided into three phases
and was to be followed in 1976 by a "general offensive and general uprising" to
complete the "liberation" of the South. The first phase of the 1975 plan, a
limited offensive in the COSVN theater of operations, would last from December
1974 to February 1975. Phase two, the heart of the 1975 offensive, would begin
in March 1975 with a corps-sized attack on the border outpost of Duc Lap on
Route 14 at the southern end of the Central Highlands. The Duc Lap attack would
be supported by secondary and diversionary operations in eastern Nam Bo (the
general area from Saigon to the edge of the Central Highlands), the lowlands of
Central Vietnam, and the Tri Thien area (the northern portion of South Vietnam's
I Corps). Phase three, August-October 1975, was a hodge-podge consisting of
follow-up attacks in northern Central Vietnam, consolidation of PAVN forces in
the rest of South Vietnam, and preparations to carry out "contingency plans" as
needed. The plan's goals for 1975 were to destroy a significant portion of
ARVN's total troop strength; defeat the pacification program; extend PAVN's
logistics and supply network down Route 14 all the way to the Mekong Delta;
interdict enemy lines of communications; cripple the South Vietnamese economy;
and incite political opposition to the South Vietnamese government. All
these different goals had the same ultimate purpose: to wear down South
Vietnamese resistance and create conditions for the appearance of a "strategic
Although the Politburo approved the General Staff plan
during its October session, it was not completely satisfied and decided to meet
again in December to review developments and make revisions in the plan as
needed. Events now intervened to significantly alter the PAVN plan. During the
October Plenum, the Politburo had concluded that based on the new domestic
situation in the United States (the political aftermath of Nixon's resignation),
America would not re-intervene in the war in any meaningful way. This
removed a central concern of the PAVN planners, giving them the freedom to
consider more aggressive options. In addition, in a battle lasting from August
to December 1974, the PAVN 304th Division overran the key outpost of Thuong Duc
in the mountains west of Da Nang and defeated a series of determined
counterattacks mounted by two ARVN divisions, the 3d and the elite Airborne
Division. Thuong Duc convinced PAVN's leadership that their soldiers could now
defeat even the best troops ARVN could muster.
The two final elements in the evolution of PAVN's final
strategy, however, were those nemeses of planners everywhere: luck and the human
factor. The human in this case was an ambitious general, Tran Van Tra. Tra was
COSVN's military commander, a position he had held off and on since 1964. Tra
was blamed by many for devising the plan used in the disastrous Tet 1968 attack
on Saigon, and his career had stagnated as a result. Now he saw a chance to
As we have seen, a key element of the General Staff's
overall plan was the requirement to be prepared to exploit immediately any
strategic opportunity. When Tra received the order from the General Staff for
COSVN to prepare a contingency plan for an immediate attack on Saigon in the
event of a possible "political-military event" (a coup), he transformed this
"contingency plan" into the foundation of the entire COSVN plan for 1975. Tra
set the capture of Saigon during 1975, not 1976, as the ultimate goal of the
COSVN plan. He demanded that Hanoi immediately send him three or four more
divisions to carry out this plan, and he changed the limited phase one COSVN
offensive called for by the General Staff into a major operation aimed at laying
the groundwork for the attack on Saigon by seizing control of the entire
province of Phuoc Long. When the High Command balked at his requests, Tra set
off for Hanoi to make his case in person.
Arriving in Hanoi in late November 1974, Tra found that the
General Staff had canceled most of his plans for the Phuoc Long attack and
forbidden any use of COSVN's precious armor and heavy artillery assets in the
smaller attacks that remained. Tra angrily began lobbying his old comrades in
the party leadership, especially First Secretary Le Duan, to reverse the General
Staff decision. In the midst of his efforts, fortune finally smiled on Tra.
During their initial attacks Tra's troops overran the small ARVN outposts at Bu
Dang and Bu Na on Route 14. COSVN Military Command reported to Hanoi on 20
December that within the ruins of these two outposts PAVN forces had captured
intact four 105mm howitzers and 7,000 rounds of artillery ammunition. This
unexpected treasure trove stunned the leadership in Hanoi. Seven thousand rounds
were more than half the number the General Staff had planned to expend
nationwide during the entire 1975 campaign. Tra now argued that he could use
this bonanza for his planned attack on the Phuoc Long province capital without
even touching his current ammunition holdings. In fact, PAVN could expect to
capture even more ammunition at the larger bases. It was an argument the
leadership could not resist. Tra was authorized to proceed with his original
plans. On 6 January the PAVN 3d and 7th Divisions completed the conquest of
Phuoc Long province by taking the province capital and capturing another 10,000
rounds of artillery ammunition. The South Vietnamese did not make even a token
effort to retake Phuoc Long, and while the United States threatened action by
diverting the Enterprise aircraft carrier battle group toward South
Vietnam, the Enterprise soon turned away and the threat evaporated.
The unexpected Phuoc Long victory finally convinced the
North Vietnamese leadership that their original plan was too conservative. The
Politburo's assessment that the United States would not re-intervene in the war
had been proven correct, the weakness of ARVN's defenses had been exposed, and,
just as important, a solution to their most critical ammunition
shortage--targeting and capturing ARVN artillery stocks--had finally been
found. In addition, the battle for Phuoc Long demonstrated to the Politburo
that the plan for PAVN's main attack in 1975, the March offensive against Duc
Lap by three PAVN divisions, was now outdated and would have to be changed. The
plan approved in October had set two main goals for the Duc Lap attack: first,
to clear Route 14 for use as a strategic transportation route for the final
attack on Saigon, and second, to draw in and annihilate a significant portion of
ARVN when it tried to retake the lost territory. Based on the lessons of Phuoc
Long, it was now clear that if Duc Lap was attacked this second goal would not
be met. Phuoc Long proved that the South Vietnamese were prepared to abandon
remote and strategically unimportant areas such as Duc Lap. If the South
Vietnamese did not try to retake Duc Lap, three entire PAVN divisions would be
left sitting in the middle of nowhere with no one to fight, and the element of
surprise would be lost. Tran Van Tra claims that it was he who first proposed
changing the attack target to Ban Me Thuot. Whether or not Tra was first with
the idea, the communist leadership embraced with open arms the prospect of
seizing Ban Me Thuot.
Ban Me Thuot was a city of over 100,000, the "capital" of
the tribal peoples of the Central Highlands. It held the headquarters and rear
base facilities of the ARVN 23d Division, including the tempting Mai Hac De
supply complex with large stores of artillery ammunition. The city straddled a
vital road junction where Route 14, running south from Kontum down to the
northern approaches of Saigon, met Route 21, running east to the large coastal
city of Nha Trang. If Ban Me Thuot was taken, PAVN forces could move swiftly by
road north to take Pleiku from the rear, east to cut Vietnam in half, or south
to attack Saigon. ARVN could not afford to lose such a strategic position and
would be forced to mount a counterattack. This was doubly true because the
families of the soldiers of the 23d Division were all housed in Ban Me
Thuot--ARVN troops simply could not abandon their own wives and children without
a fight. Ten years previously, the tiny hamlet of Binh Gia east of Saigon had
been selected as the target of the first communist multi-regimental operation of
the war (in December 1964) largely because many families of ARVN marines were
housed in Binh Gia. PAVN commanders had known ARVN would rush to retake the
hamlet in order to rescue their loved ones and laid a trap which destroyed the
ARVN relief force. Now PAVN repeated this tactic on a much larger scale.
Because Ban Me Thuot was so lightly defended (by only the understrength 53d
Infantry Regiment, an armored and an artillery battalion, and several Regional
Force battalions), a massive surprise attack on the city would quickly
overwhelm its defenders. Once the city was taken, PAVN forces could deploy to
block and destroy ARVN's counterattack while the ARVN relief force was caught
out in the open without time to dig in.
On 7 January 1975, at the conclusion of the Politburo
session during which the new plan was approved, First Secretary Le Duan laid out
the goals of the new attack:
In Military Region 5 and the Central Highlands, use three
main-force divisions to attack the Central Highlands, open up a corridor
connecting the southern Central Highlands with eastern Nam Bo, and create
conditions for the main-force troops to move quickly into eastern Nam Bo and
coordinate with the [COSVN] main force troops in attacking Saigon. The opening
battles will be fought to take Ban Me Thuot, break through to Tuy Hoa and Phu
Yen, cut the Military Region 5 lowlands [and South Vietnam] in half, and create
another direction from which to rapidly advance south and put pressure on
Prospects for the future were so promising that the
Politburo, acting on a suggestion from General Giap, ordered the General Staff
to prepare a new contingency plan for the total conquest of South Vietnam before
the end of 1975.
Two days later the Central Military Party Committee met and
laid down specific goals for the 1975 Central Highlands Campaign:
Destroy four to five enemy infantry
regiments, one to two armored squadrons, and inflict serious losses on ARVN 2d
Liberate the provinces of Darlac, Phu Bon,
and Quang Duc, with the city of Ban Me Thuot as the main target.
If the opportunity should arise, expand the
attack to the north to liberate Pleiku and Kontum provinces or to the east to
take Phu Yen and Khanh Hoa.
To demonstrate the importance the leadership now attached
to this operation, PAVN Chief of Staff General Van Tien Dung was ordered to
depart immediately for the Ban Me Thuot area as the personal representative of
the Politburo and to assume overall command of the Central Highlands
This new PAVN plan was daring and innovative. One senior
South Vietnamese general, speaking after the fall of Saigon, saw in the PAVN
strategy a reflection of B. H. Liddell Hart's strategy of the indirect
approach. PAVN's key blow would be directed not at the enemy's main army,
but instead at a weakly defended strategic point which the enemy could not
afford to lose. The plan emphasized the principles of mass, speed, surprise, and
deception. Finally, the seizure of Ban Me Thuot would allow PAVN to select any
of several different options for its next move, thus forcing ARVN, already
spread thin, to guess where PAVN would strike next. Enactment of the plan would
place the South Vietnamese in the position that Liddell Hart most favored for an
enemy: "on the horns of a dilemma." It invited ARVN's commanders to make a
mistake and ensured that PAVN was prepared to exploit any opportunity.
Executing the Plan
Events now began to move quickly. Units participating in
the attack (including the 10th and 320th Divisions of the Central Highlands
Front; the 968th Division from Laos; the 316th Division trucked south from North
Vietnam; four independent infantry regiments; armored, artillery, and engineer
units; and 8,000 recruits from North Vietnam) began arriving at their assembly
areas. Assured by their excellent espionage network that the South
Vietnamese were still ignorant of their real intentions, and aware they could
not keep their massive supply and logistics preparations a complete secret, the
communists mounted a sophisticated deception campaign directly targeted against
the strongest element of their opposition's intelligence apparatus: the
electronic and aerial reconnaissance assets of South Vietnam and its US
allies. Strict radio silence was imposed on all units involved in the
offensive. PAVN deception personnel sent hundreds of fake radio messages,
made unconcealed truck movements, and conducted bogus road-building operations,
all aimed at convincing the South Vietnamese that the PAVN 10th and 320th
Divisions were concentrating around Pleiku and Kontum and that these two cities
in the northern Central Highlands were PAVN's true targets. This deception
operation was so effective that a number of human source reports from prisoners
and agents indicating that PAVN was in fact about to attack Ban Me Thuot were
disregarded by the South Vietnamese commanders.
By the end of February all PAVN units were in place. On 1
March the 968th Division attacked several small outposts west of Pleiku,
focusing ARVN attention on the threat to that city. On 4 March the PAVN
offensive kicked off with an attack by Regiment 95A which overran several small
ARVN outposts guarding Route 19 in the Mang Yang Pass, thereby severing ARVN's
main supply route to its forces in the Central Highlands. Farther east on Route
19 the 3d PAVN Division launched its own offensive, making further cuts on this
vital road and tying down the ARVN 22d Division. The next day PAVN's 25th
Regiment cut Route 21, the only other road from the coast to the Highlands,
between Ban Me Thuot and Nha Trang. ARVN forces in the Central Highlands were
now isolated and completely dependent on aerial resupply. The South Vietnamese
air force's meager air transport assets were totally inadequate to conduct an
airlift of this size. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and his
General Staff realized that unless Routes 19 and 21 were reopened soon, ARVN
forces in the Highlands would rapidly run out of food, fuel, and ammunition. On
8 March the PAVN 320th Division overran a district capital on Route 14 north of
Ban Me Thuot, cutting the road to Pleiku and completing the isolation of Ban Me
Thuot. The stage was set for the final attack, and ARVN still had not guessed
that Ban Me Thuot was the target.
Watching developments in Saigon, President Thieu and his
General Staff could not tell where the main communist blow would fall. As part
of the PAVN deception campaign and to prevent ARVN reserves from being sent to
reinforce the Central Highlands, in the days preceding the Ban Me Thuot
attack communist forces had launched a wave of attacks throughout South Vietnam.
In the north, on 5 March sapper and guerrilla forces attacked the lowlands of
Quang Tri and Thua Thien, and on 8 March the PAVN 324th Division struck hard at
ARVN's main defense line southwest of Hue. To the south, on 8 March
communist forces mounted a series of attacks in the Saigon area and the Mekong
Delta, culminating in the capture of a key district capital northwest of
Saigon. President Thieu and his generals were befuddled. A nationwide
communist offensive was clearly imminent, but what was its main target? Where
was the danger the greatest? To Thieu and his generals, the answer appeared
obvious: the capital, Saigon. PAVN's deception plan had worked to perfection.
On 9 March the PAVN 10th Division, with two infantry
regiments (the 28th and 66th) and supported by only two 105mm howitzers with 50
rounds of ammunition, attacked and overran Duc Lap and all its outlying
defensive positions within 24 hours. ARVN losses at Duc Lap totaled three
battalions, including 14 artillery pieces and 20 armored vehicles. After
consolidating its victory, the 10th marched north toward Ban Me Thuot.
During the early morning hours of 10 March, 12 PAVN
regiments launched a massive surprise attack on Ban Me Thuot. The 198th Sapper
Regiment and two regular infantry battalions which had secretly infiltrated into
the city struck Ban Me Thuot's two airports, the Mai Hac De supply depot, and
the 23d Division headquarters. Five infantry regiments (three from the 316th
Division, the 10th Division's 24th Regiment, and the battle-scarred veterans of
the 325th Division's 95B Regiment) rolled into the city from three directions,
led by 64 tanks and armored personnel carriers of the 273d Armored Regiment and
under a curtain of fire laid down by the 78 heavy guns of the 40th and 675th
Artillery Regiments. The 232d and 234th Antiaircraft Regiments accompanied
the attack columns, putting up an umbrella of antiaircraft fire so intense that
South Vietnamese air force bombing attacks were largely ineffective and did
almost as much damage to friendly forces as to their PAVN targets. After 32
hours of combat, PAVN forces overran the 23d Division headquarters complex and
captured the division's deputy commander. General Dung informed Hanoi that
his forces had captured 12 artillery pieces and 100 tons of artillery ammunition
in Ban Me Thuot, assuring the worried General Staff that the offensive could
proceed unhindered by ammunition concerns. The North Vietnamese leadership
immediately recognized the significance of their victory. During a Politburo
meeting on 11 March, Le Duan broached the possibility that the strategic
opportunity, the time to launch the final general offensive, might be
imminent. Victory in war goes to the side prepared to seize it. The North
Vietnamese were prepared.
The drum roll of attacks, first seemingly directed at
Pleiku, then Saigon and Hue, and now, unexpectedly, the assault on Ban Me Thuot,
were psychological blows that stunned South Vietnam's leaders. Confused,
desperate, and in what must have been a virtual state of shock, South Vietnamese
President Nguyen Van Thieu made two momentous decisions on 10 and 11 March that
sealed the fate of South Vietnam. Thieu still had not guessed that Ban Me Thuot
was PAVN's main target. He was convinced, however, that he was facing an all-out
offensive and that PAVN's ultimate target was Saigon. Thieu's first move was to
order the immediate recall of the ARVN Airborne Division, the cornerstone of the
defense of I Corps, to shore up Saigon's defenses. As ARVN commanders tried
to withdraw units and redeploy to fill the gap left by the Airborne's pull-out,
the defenses of I Corps began to teeter like a house of cards. Second, as the
North Vietnamese knew he would, Thieu ordered an immediate counterattack to
retake Ban Me Thuot "at all costs." With the road to Ban Me Thuot cut, ARVN
II Corps Commander General Pham Van Phu was forced to send the two remaining
regiments of his 23d Division into battle by helicopter, dropping five
battalions on a landing zone east of Ban Me Thuot during the period 12-14 March
with no armor and only limited artillery support. The regiments landed in the
middle of a planned PAVN "killing zone." The 10th Division, newly arrived from
Duc Lap and with powerful armored and artillery support, lay in wait. In four
days of blitzkrieg-like attacks the 10th rolled over and destroyed what was left
of the 23d Division and the 21st ARVN Ranger Group. Meanwhile, the last
remnants of ARVN's once-powerful army in the Highlands (19 ranger battalions,
one infantry battalion, three armored squadrons, and six artillery battalions),
their supply lines cut and with no prospect of resupply or rescue, were
doomed. Thieu's 14 March order to withdraw these forces from Pleiku down the
unused and almost impassable Provincial Route 7B to the coast was an act of
desperation aimed at saving what was left of his forces in the Highlands. The
order was stupid, its execution abysmal, but, in context, it was understandable.
As General Dung's forces completed their destruction of the
ARVN column withdrawing from Pleiku, General Giap ordered his forces around Hue
to bypass the ARVN mountain defense line which had thrown back PAVN's initial
attacks. Giap ordered PAVN 2d Corps to send its 324th and 325th Divisions to
strike directly into the coastal lowlands, cut Route 1, ARVN's main line of
withdrawal, and destroy retreating ARVN forces before they could regroup and
consolidate. Caught in the open and on the move, cut off and isolated, the
retreating ARVN units were swept with panic. By 29 March, Hue, Da Nang, and all
of ARVN I Corps were in communist hands.
Meanwhile, during a historic Politburo session on 18 March,
General Giap drove the final nail into South Vietnam's coffin with the last
major strategic decision of his illustrious military career. Giap announced that
the long-awaited strategic opportunity had now arrived. He recommended that PAVN
immediately launch a nationwide general offensive to seize total control of
South Vietnam before the end of 1975. North Vietnam's last strategic reserve,
the elite 1st Corps, should now be committed to the battle. The Politburo
instantly approved Giap's recommendations and issued orders for an all-out
assault on Saigon.
With this decision, the outcome of the war was no longer in
doubt. The coroner's certificate lists 30 April 1975 as the time of death, but
the shot that killed the Republic of South Vietnam was fired on 18 March by
General Vo Nguyen Giap. Contrary to his well-earned reputation for ruthlessness,
Giap's last victory was also his most bloodless.
1. On the fighting prowess of ARVN in the late stage of the
war, see Lewis Sorley, "Courage and Blood: South Vietnam's Repulse of the 1972
Easter Offensive," Parameters, 29 (Summer 1999), 38-56.
2. Military History Institute of Vietnam, History of the
People's Army of Vietnam, Vol. II (Hanoi: People's Army Publishing House,
1994), pp. 461-62 (hereinafter HPAV); Hoang Van Thai, The Decisive Years:
Memoirs of Senior General Hoang Van Thai, Joint Publications Research
Service Report JPRS-SEA-87-084, 23 June 1987, p. 44.
3. HPAV, p. 458; Hoang Van Thai, p. 50.
4. HPAV, p. 461; Hoang Van Thai, pp. 37-39.
5. Hoang Van Thai, pp. 44-45.
6. See especially Hoang Van Thai, and Van Tien Dung,
Great Spring Victory (Hanoi: People's Army Publishing House, 1976).
7. Hoang Van Thai, p. 66. According to this account, the
man described by many as the architect of the 1975 victory, PAVN Chief of Staff
Van Tien Dung, was "vacationing" abroad while the plan was being drawn up and
got his first look at the plan only in August when he returned to Vietnam.
8. Ibid., p. 65.
9. Ibid., p. 47.
10. HPAV, p. 469.
11. Hoang Van Thai, pp. 60-61.
12. Ibid., pp. 56-57
13. Ibid., pp. 44-45.
14. HPAV, p. 469; Hoang Van Thai, pp. 36, 73. See also
Arnold R. Isaacs, Without Honor (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press,
1982), pp. 334-35. Oleg Sarin and Lev Dvoretsky, Alien Wars (Novato,
Calif.: Presidio Press, 1996), drawing on official Soviet sources, state that
the reduction in Soviet military aid to North Vietnam actually began in the
15. HPAV, pp. 469-71; Hoang Van Thai, p. 79.
16. Tran Van Tra, Concluding the 30-Year War, Vol. 5
of his Memoirs (Saigon: Ho Chi Minh Cultural Publishing House, 1982), pp.
17. HPAV, p. 543.
18. Tran Van Tra, p. 182.
19. HPAV, p. 469; Hoang Van Thai, pp. 42, 60.
20. Tran Van Tra, pp. 159, 161.
21. Ibid., p. 186.
22. Hoang Van Thai, p. 67.
23. Ibid., pp. 57, 68.
24. Ibid., pp. 68-69. See also HPAV, p. 488, and Tran Van
Tra, pp. 162, 181, both citing Duc Lap as the target for the phase two attack in
the Central Highlands.
25. Van Tien Dung, pp. 27-28; HPAV, p. 483.
26. HPAV, pp. 479-81; Hoang Van Thai, pp. 62-63.
27. Phillip B. Davidson, Vietnam at War: The History,
1946-1975 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 758-59; Stanley I. Kutler,
ed., Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons,
1996), p. 545.
28. Tran Van Tra, pp. 143-53, 156-57, and 172-74; Davidson,
29. HPAV, p. 485; Tran Van Tra, p. 173; Hoang Van Thai, p.
30. Tran Van Tra, p.176; Hoang Van Thai, p. 80.
31. HPAV, pp. 485-86; Hoang Van Thai, p. 80; Davidson, pp.
32. Hoang Van Thai, p. 81.
33. Tran Van Tra, pp. 180-83; Hoang Van Thai, pp. 81-85.
34. HPAV, p. 189.
35. Ibid., p. 493.
36. Hoang Van Thai, p. 85.
37. HPAV, p. 487; Tran Van Tra, p. 187.
38. HPAV, p. 488.
39. Ibid., pp. 488-89.
40. Stephen Kosmer, Konrad Kellen, and Brian Jenkins,
The Fall of South Vietnam (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1978), p. 79.
41. Ibid., p. 491.
42. Frank Snepp, Decent Interval (New York: Random
House, 1977), pp. 133-34; Tran Van Tra, pp. 211-12.
43. HPAV, p. 491.
44. Ibid., pp. 494-95; Snepp, pp. 171-74.
45. Hoang Van Thai, pp. 69-77.
46. Xuan Thieu, North of the Hai Van Pass, 1975
(Hanoi: People's Army Publishing House, 1977), cited in Nguyen Khac Ngu,
Final Days of the Republic of Vietnam (Montreal: n.p., 1979), p. 219.
47. HPAV, p. 512; Nauyen Khac Ngu, p. 219.
48. Tran Van Tra, pp. 218-20; HPAV, p. 537-38.
49. HPAV, p. 498; Van Tien Dung, p. 120, map.
50. HPAV, pp. 498-501; number of tanks and artillery pieces
taken from Thunder in the Highlands (People's Army newspaper), 8 March
51. HPAV, p. 501; Snepp, p. 181.
52. HPAV, p. 502.
53. Hoang Van Thai, p. 93.
54. Tran Van Tra, p. 223; Hoang Van Thai, p. 92.
55. Kosmer, Kellen, and Jenkins, p. 87; Davidson, pp.
779-80; Snepp, pp. 183-85.
56. Kosmer, Kellen, and Jenkins, p. 88; Davidson, p. 773.
57. HPAV, pp. 503-05.
58. Ibid., p. 506.
59. Ibid., p. 515; Xuan Thieu, p. 141, as cited in Final
Days of the Republic of Vietnam, pp. 231-32.
60. Hoang Van Thai, pp. 100-01.
Merle L. Pribbenow retired from the Central Intelligence
Agency in 1995 after 27 years as a Vietnamese linguist, operations officer, and
Indochina area specialist. During the Vietnam War he served at the US Embassy in
Saigon for five years and was evacuated from the Embassy by helicopter on 29
April 1975 upon the fall of Saigon.