Battle of Quang Tri (1968)
The Battle for Quang Tri occurred in and around Quang Tri City (Quang Tri Province), the northernmost provincial capital of Republic of South Vietnam during the Tet Offensive when the Vietcong and People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) attacked Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and American forces across major cities and towns in South Vietnam in an attempt to force the Saigon government to collapse. This included several attacks across northern I Corps, most importantly at Hue, Da Nang and Quang Tri City. After being put on the defensive in the city of Quang Tri, the anti-communist forces regrouped and forced the communists out of the town after a day of fighting.
In 1968, Quang Tri City was a small market town and the capital of Quang Tri Province, the northernmost province of South Vietnam, bordering North Vietnam to the north, and Laos to the west. Like the old imperial capital at Hue, Quang Tri City is located on Route 1. It is about 10 kilometers (6.2 mi) inland from the South China Sea along the eastern bank of the Thach Han River, 25 kilometers (16 mi) south of the former Demilitarized Zone. Because Quang Tri City was an important symbol of South Vietnamese government authority and was arguably the most vulnerable provincial capital in South Vietnam, it was a prime target of the North Vietnamese during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The North Vietnamese had attacked and briefly overrun and occupied the city ten months earlier, on April 6, 1967, in a large scale coordinated attack by a reinforced PAVN regiment, inflicting significant casualties on Allied Forces before the attack was defeated. They freed 220 Communist prisoners from a city prison, and caused widespread destruction at ARVN facilities in and around the city and in adjacent districts. The permanent loss of the city to the Communists would be a political embarrassment and weaken the government's legitimacy, and would allow the establishment of a Communist administrative center in the South. The question was not whether the Communists would attack Quang Tri City again, but when.
Communist forces and plan of attack
The PAVN 812th Regiment (reinforced), 324th People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) Division, was assigned the task of capturing and holding Quang Tri City. Its four regular battalions, K-4, K-5, K-6 and K-8 (from the NVA 90th Regiment) numbered about 400 men each. Along with elements of the 10th Sapper Battalion, signal, reconnaissance and heavy weapons support companies, the regiment totaled about 2,000 troops for the assault. Their numbers were augmented by the 600-man Viet Cong 814th Main Force Battalion (nominally a southern Communist unit but made up largely of North Vietnamese regulars).
The PAVN plan called for a platoon from the 10th Sapper Battalion to infiltrate the city on the evening of 30 January to pave the way for a major assault by elements of the 812th Regiment. The K4 Battalion (PAVN) and the 814th Main Force Battalion would supply the primary assaulting forces. At 0200 on the 31st the sappers would emerge from hiding to destroy key installations in the city. At the same time the K4 Battalion would attack from the east and the 814th Battalion from the northeast. A 122-mm. rocket battalion (probably from the 54th Artillery Regiment) would provide supporting fire for the attack. The K8 Battalion would position itself along Highway 1 north of the city to block allied reinforcements coming from that direction. The K6 Battalion would block Highway 1 south of the city and attack the headquarters of the ARVN 1st Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, at La Vang Thuong. The 812th's K5 Battalion would remain in reserve in the village of Hai Lang 8 kilometers (5.0 mi) southeast of the city. Commandos from the 10th Sapper Battalion would also attack Landing Zone Jane south of La Vang to keep the American forces there tied down. The 814th and K4 Battalions would then occupy the city, and the remainder of the 812th Regiment would deploy in blocking positions in the surrounding area to prevent allied reinforcements.
Particularly given their failure to hold Quang Tri City after overrunning and briefly occupying it in April 1967 despite committing a large force of about 2,500 men, the Communists became more aware of the difficulties of attacking and capturing the city. In the weeks before Tet, they had attempted to lure allied forces from the coastal lowlands to the mountains by threatening several of the Marine combat bases along Highway 9 in the western part of the province. But while the U.S. Marines had shifted some forces to their base at Khe Sanh, MACV commanders had reinforced eastern Quang Tri Province in late January with the 1st Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division. The existence of major American units near Quang Tri City came as a shock to the enemy, but with little time to make adjustments, the Communists decided to move forward with their original plan.
Disposition of Vietnamese government units
The brunt of the attack would fall on the ARVN forces in and around the city. These were the 1st Vietnamese Regiment, the 9th Airborne Battalion, an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) Troop attached to the 1st Regiment (2nd Troop of the ARVN 7th Cavalry), the National Police—a paramilitary body led by regular military officers stationed within the city—and Regional and Popular Force (militia) elements in the city. The 1st Regiment had two of its battalions in positions to the north of the city, and one to the northeast, protecting pacified villages in those areas. The Regiment's fourth battalion was in positions south of the city in and around the regiment's headquarters at La Vang. One Airborne company was bivouacked in Tri Buu village on the northern edge of the city with elements in the Citadel, and two Airborne companies were positioned just south of the city in the area of a large cemetery where Highway 1 crosses Route 555.
Disposition of American units
The 1st Brigade of the 1st US Cavalry Division commanded by Colonel Donald V. Rattan had been moved from near Hue and Phu Bai six days earlier to Quang Tri Province, with its headquarters at Landing Zone Betty two kilometers south of Quang Tri City, with the bulk of its force at LZ Sharon, another kilometer south, in order to launch attacks on Communist Base Area 101 roughly 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) to the west-southwest. The brigade had an additional mission to block approaches into the city from the southwest but was primarily focused on its offensive mission. Accordingly, had quickly established two fire bases, one 15 kilometers (9.3 mi) west of the city and another in the middle of the Communist base areas in the hills west of Quang Tri City. The 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division was also moved into Quang Tri Province in late January, reinforcing the two brigades of the 1st Cavalry in the area.
Assault on Quang Tri City
The coordinated Communist assault was scheduled to begin at 0200 on 31 January. The 10th Sapper began its attacks on time, but the arrival and attacks of the PAVN infantry and artillery units were delayed by at least two hours by heavy rains and swollen streams and their lack of familiarity with the geography of Quang Tri Province, and they did not start to move into position until about 0400. As a result, Regional and Popular Forces, local National Police elements, and elements of the 1st ARVN Regiment located within the city were able to respond to the sappers without having to contend with the main attack at the same time.
As the 814th Battalion was moving into position to attack Quang Tri from the northeast, it unexpectedly encountered the 9th ARVN Airborne company in Tri Buu village, which engaged it in a sharp firefight lasting about 20 minutes. The Airborne company was nearly annihilated and an American adviser killed, but its stubborn resistance stalled the 814th battalion's assault on the Citadel and the city. By 0420, the heavy communist pressure and overwhelming numbers forced the surviving South Vietnamese paratroopers to pull back into the city, and the 814th attacked and attempted to enter the Citadel unsuccessfully.
The assault against the eastern and southeastern part the city was initially successful. At about 0420, as the 814th Battalion began its delayed assault on the Citadel, the K4 Battalion of the 812th PAVN Regiment skirted the lower edge of Tri Buu Village and swarmed into the city, attempting to seize strong points and assaulting the Citadel from the south. South Vietnamese irregulars and National Policemen slowed the enemy’s advance, however, and it's assaults on the southern wall of the Citadel were beaten back. Adding to its difficulties was the failure of an expected "general uprising" it had been told to expect. To the south, the PAVN K6 battalion slammed unexpectedly into the two Airborne companies resulting in an intense, extended firefight.
Shortly after dawn the 1st Infantry Regimental commander ordered his battalions to recapture the city. His three battalions north of Quang Tri City began marching toward the capital. Along the way, they collided with the 808th Battalion blocking Highway 1 near the Trieu Phong District headquarters which temporarily stopped their assault. At about the same time, ARVN troops at La Vang began moving north toward the fighting between the Airborne companies and the K6 Battalion in the cemetery south of the city, and were ambushed by the K6th, slowing their advance to a crawl. Fighting south of the city there was heavy throughout the morning. Only the NVA K5 Battalion, holding a position in Hai Lang District to block reinforcements from Hue, remained unengaged in the fighting.
Engagement of American forces and counterattack
Shortly after noon on 31 January, Robert Brewer, the senior adviser to the military officer who was Province Chief of Quang Tri, held a conference with Colonel Rattan, and the senior US adviser to the Vietnamese 1st Regiment. The city's status was in the balance. The enemy had infiltrated at least a battalion into the city and its defending forces were in need of immediate assistance. At the time, it appeared that the communists reinforcing from the east and had established fire support positions on the eastern edge of the city.
At the start of the communist attack, the ARVN 1st Regimental headquarters at La Vang and Col. Rattan's headquarters at Landing Zone Betty south of La Vang came under sporadic rocket and mortar attacks and ground assaults by elements of the 10th Sapper Battalion, while extremely heavy fog hampered visibility. The fog also prevented shifting the 1st Battalion of the 8th US Cavalry Regiment (1st Cavalry Division) its base camp in the mountains west of Quang Tri. The 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, of the 101st Airborne Division, which was under the control of the 1st Cavalry Division, continued its base defense mission and just west of Quang Tri.
This left only the 1st Battalion of the 12th US Cavalry Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry Regiment to support the ARVN units engaged with the Communist. Both battalions had opened new fire bases to the west of Quang Tri, along the river valley leading to Khe Sanh. At approximately 1345 on 31 January, Col. Rattan directed the battalions to close out the new fire bases and launch assaults as soon as possible to reduce the Communists' ability to bring additional forces into the city and also blocking their withdrawal. By 1600, the cavalry battalions had air assaulted into five locations northeast, east, and southeast of Quang Tri City where Brewer intelligence sources had showed Communist units located. The American helicopters received heavy fire as they landed troops east of the city in the middle of the heavy weapons support of the K-4 Battalion, and fighting there continued until 1900 as the Communists fought with machine guns, mortars, and recoilless rifles. Engaged by ARVN forces in and near the city, and by American forces on the east, the K4 Battalion was soon overcome.
Two companies of the 1st Battalion of the 5th Cavalry air-assaulted southeast of Quang Tri engaging the K6 Battalion from the rear in a heavy firefight, while ARVN troops blocked and attacked it from the direction of the city. American helicopter gunships and artillery hit the Communist troops hard causing significant further casualties. By nightfall on the 31st, the battered 812th Regiment decided to withdraw, though clashes continued throughout the night.
Quang Tri City was clear of Communist troops by midday on 1 February, and ARVN units with U.S. air support had cleared Tri Buu Village of PAVN troops. The remnants of the 812th, having been hit hard by ARVN defenders and American air power and ground troops on the outskirts of the city, particularly artillery and helicopters, broke up into small groups, sometimes mingling with crowds of fleeing refugees, and began to exfiltrate the area, trying to avoid further contact with Allied forces. They were pursued by the American forces in a circular formation forced contact with the fleeing Communists over the next ten days. Heavy fighting continued with large well-armed Communist forces south of Quang Tri City, and there were lighter contacts in other areas. This pursuit continued throughout the first ten days of February.
The American military considered the Communist attack on Quang Tri "without a doubt one of the major objectives of the Tet offensive". They attributed the decisive Communist defeat to the hard-nosed South Vietnamese defense, effective intelligence on Communist movements provided by Robert Brewer, and the air mobile tactics of the 1st Cavalry Division. Between 31 January and 6 February, the allies killed an estimated 914 Communists and captured another 86 in and around Quang Tri City.
The rapid defeat of the regimental-size enemy force that assaulted Quang Tri City proved to be one of the most decisive victories the allies secured during the Tet Offensive. Aside from mopping up operations in the countryside, it was effectively over less than twenty-four hours after it had begun. Most elements of the 812th PAVN Regiment were so badly mauled that they avoided all contact for the next several weeks, when they otherwise might have played a role in the battle for Hue 50 kilometers (31 mi) to the south. Losing the province capital would have been a severe blow to South Vietnamese morale, and PAVN units could have caused extensive damage to nearby ARVN and American bases had they captured long range ARVN artillery pieces in the Citadel. They would also have cut off resupply traffic on Highway 1 to allied forces along the DMZ and the Marines at Khe Sanh. The PAVN's swift defeat preserved an important symbol of South Vietnamese national pride and allowed the allies to devote more resources to other battles in northern I Corps, particularly to the struggle for Hue.
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