On the blog today, author Will Hiestand introduces us to the Easter Offensive.
While working on the Tanks in the Easter Offensive New Vanguard, I came across a particularly unique tank unit. Almost all North Vietnamese armored units were equipped with Soviet or Chinese-produced armored vehicles during the 1972 Easter Offensive. An exception was the unique 33rd Independent Armored Company, the first NVA tank unit set up in Cambodia, that entered the offensive largely equipped with western equipment.
Cambodia had attempted to maintain its neutral status during the 1960s, despite the extensive use of its territory by the North Vietnamese Army for base areas to support operations against the south. Cambodian forces were equipped with a mix of US World War II-era equipment, some BTR-40s and BTR-152s from the USSR, and Panhard AML-60 and AML-90 armored cars, as well as 40 AMX-13 light tanks from France. In March 1970, Prince Sihanouk was deposed by a new, pro-western government and Cambodian forces, now named the Forces Armees Nationale Khmer (FANK) began to attack the NVA. In April 1971, FANK suffered a major repulse during Operation Chenla II, losing numbers of tanks and AFVs to the NVA.
The North Vietnamese were adept at employing captured enemy equipment and formed the 33rd Independent Armored company with six former-FANK M24s, some M5 Half Tracks and M113 APCs, along with several Soviet-produced PT-76s. The company even operated a single AMX-13. The 33rd was organized under the 26th Armored Group, which also controlled the 20th and 21st Armored Battalions sent down from the north and equipped with T-54A and B medium tanks. South Vietnamese intelligence missed the presence of NVA armor in the south completely, as the 20th and 21st had used extensive camouflage and night movements along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to escape detection.
The 33rd played an important role in the early stages of the Easter Offensive. The ARVN III Corps had three divisions to defend the Saigon region. Two ARVN divisions guarded provinces bordering Cambodia, the 25th in Tây Ninh and the 5th in the province just to the east, Bình Long. The NVA planned to launch its major attack with three divisions and the 20th and 21st armored battalions through Bình Long province and then on to Saigon. The ARVN III Corps leadership, however, felt that the major NVA attack would come through Tây Ninh, and to reinforce this misperception the NVA assigned its 24th Independent Regiment and the 33rd Armored Company to launch a diversionary attack there to pin the 25th Division in place. The attack began on 2 April with the 24th and 33rd assaulting an ARVN fire support base (FSB) at Lac Long defended by a battalion of the 25th Division. Two M24s were lost to South Vietnamese air attack, but the base was overrun by the NVA two days later. As a result, the III Corps commander ordered an evacuation of all FSBs along the border. Joined by the 271st Regiment of the Viet Cong 9th Division, the 24th ultimately threatened Tây Ninh itself. The ARVN 25th Division would be pinned in the area throughout the offensive, and was unable to help the ARVN 5th division’s desperate defense against three NVA/VC divisions attacking Binh Long. Fortunately for the US and its South Vietnamese allies, the 5th was able to rally at the city of An Loc and withstand repeated, T-54-led NVA attacks aided by massive air support. The battle halted the NVA threat to Saigon, and is discussed in more detail in my New Vanguard title: NVG 303 Tanks in the Easter Offensive 1972: The Vietnam War's great conventional clash.
Albert Grandolini, the Easter Offensive Vietnam 1972. Volume 2: Tanks in the Streets. Helion & Company Limited, Solihull, West Midlands (2015)
Truong, Lt. Gen. Ngo Quang, Indochina Monographs: The Easter Offensive of 1972. US Army Center of Military History, Washington DC (reprinted 1984)