Battle of Xuân Lộc
The Battle of Xuan Loc (Vietnamese: Trận Xuân Lộc) was the last major battle of the Vietnam War in which the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) committed almost all their remaining mobile forces, especially the South Vietnamese 18th Infantry Division, under General Le Minh Dao to the defence of Xuân Lộc, hoping to stall the advance of the North Vietnamese Army. The battle was fought between April 9 and 21, 1975, and ended when the town of Xuân Lộc was captured by the PAVN 4th Army Corps. This was the ARVN III Corps' last defensive line of South Vietnam's capital, Sài Gòn (Saigon). The line connected the city of Bình Dương, Biên Hoà Air Base, Vũng Tàu, Long An and the lynchpin centered on the strategic city of Xuân Lộc, where both the ARVN-JGS and RVNAF-JGS committed the nation's final reserve forces in Saigon's defense. Once Xuân Lộc fell on 21 April 1975, the PVN battled with the last remaining elements of III Corp Armored Task Force, remnants of the 18th Infantry Division, and depleted ARVN Marine, Airborne and Ranger Battalions in a fighting retreat that lasted nine days, until they reached Saigon and PVN armored columns crashed throughout the gates of South Vietnam's Presidential Palace on 30 April 1975, effectively ending the war.
From the beginning of 1975, North Vietnam's military forces swept through the northern provinces of South Vietnam virtually unopposed. In the Central Highlands, South Vietnam's II Corps Tactical Zone was completely destroyed, whilst attempting to evacuate to the Mekong Delta region. In the cities of Huế and Da Nang, ARVN units simply dissolved without putting up resistance. The devastating defeats suffered by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam prompted South Vietnam's National Assembly to question President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu's handling of the war, thereby placing him under tremendous pressure to resign.
In the last-ditch effort to save South Vietnam, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu ordered his last military units, namely the ARVN 18th Infantry Division "The Super Men", to hold Xuân Lộc at all cost. The North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps, on the other hand, was ordered to capture Xuân Lộc in order to open the gateway to Saigon. During the early stages of the battle, the ARVN 18th Infantry Division managed to beat off early attempts by the Communists to capture the town, forcing North Vietnamese commanders to change their battle plan. However, on April 19, 1975, Dao's forces were ordered to withdraw after Xuân Lộc was almost completely isolated, with all remaining units badly mauled. The 18th disintegrated shortly afterward.
This defeat also marked the end of Thiệu's political career, as he resigned on 21 April 1975.
In the first half of 1975, the government of the Republic of Vietnam was in deep political turmoil, which reflected the military situation on the battlefield. At least two assassination attempts specifically targeting President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu were foiled. On January 23, a South Vietnamese army officer tried to shoot President Thieu with his pistol but failed. The officer was subsequently tried by a military court. On April 4, South Vietnamese pilot Nguyen Thanh Trung bombed the Independence Palace with his F-5 Tiger. It later turned out that the pilot had been an undercover member of the Viet Cong since 1969. Following those failed assassination attempts, President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu grew suspicious of his own military commanders.
On April 2, the South Vietnamese Senate recommended the formation of a new government with Nguyễn Bá Cẩn as the new leader. As a result, Prime Minister Trần Thiện Khiêm resigned from his position. President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, in response to the Senate's recommendations, immediately approved Tran Thien Kiem's resignation and swore in Nguyen Ba Can as the new Prime Minister. On April 4, while announcing the changes of government on Saigon television, President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu also requested the arrest of three army commanders; Major General Phạm Văn Phú for the debacle in the Central Highlands, General Phạm Quốc Thuần for his failure to hold Nha Trang, and Lieutenant General Dư Quốc Đống for the loss of Phước Long. General Ngô Quang Trưởng, commander of I Corps Tactical Zone, was spared as he was undergoing medical treatment.
During a meeting with U.S. General Frederick C. Weyand on April 3, President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu outlined his final strategy to defend South Vietnam, vowing to hold what was left of his country against Communist North Vietnam. In his strategy, President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu decided that Xuan Loc would be the center of his country's resistance, with Tây Ninh and Phan Rang on either side. Eventually, the meeting became more intense when Nguyễn Văn Thiệu produced a letter written by former U.S. President Richard Nixon, which promised military retaliation against North Vietnam if they violated the terms of the Paris Peace Accords. The meeting then concluded with Nguyễn Văn Thiệu accusing the United States Government of selling out his country the moment they signed the Paris Peace Accords with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
In contrast to the situation faced by their opponents in Saigon, the North Vietnamese government were buoyed by the victories achieved by their armies since December 1974. By April 8, 1975, the North Vietnamese military had captured all the provinces in South Vietnam's I and II Corps Tactical Zones, as well as Phước Long Province. While the South Vietnamese army were disintegrating all over the battlefield, North Vietnam had two army corps moving towards the last South Vietnamese stronghold at Xuan Loc. The North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps, which overran Phước Long several months earlier, approached Xuan Loc from the north-east after they conquered Tây Ninh, Binh Long and Long Khánh. The 3rd Army Corps, on the other hand, moved towards Xuan Loc from the north-west after they defeated the South Vietnamese army in the Central Highlands.
Order of Battle
On April 8, 1975, the ARVN 18th Infantry Division was the main unit defending Xuan Loc, which had three regiments (43rd, 48th and 52nd Infantry Regiments). There were also five armoured brigades, four regional force battalions (340th, 342nd, 343rd and 367th Battalions), two artillery units (181st and 182nd Artillery Battalions) equipped with forty-two artillery guns, and two companies of civilian self-defence forces. On April 12, Xuan Loc was reinforced with the 1st Airborne Brigade, three armoured brigades (315th, 318th and 322nd Armoured Brigades), the 8th Task Force from the 5th Infantry Division, and the 33rd Ranger Battalion. Air support came in the form of two air force divisions; the 5th Air Force Division based at Bien Hoa, and the 3rd Air Force Division at Tan Son Nhut. The commander of the South Vietnamese army at Xuan Loc was General Le Minh Dao.
As the North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps was the first army to arrive on the battlefield at Xuan Loc, the Central Military Committee decided that the 4th Army Corps would lead the assault. The 4th Army Corps at Xuan Loc fielded three combat divisions (6th, 7th and 341st Infantry Divisions). Those divisions had support from the 71st Anti-Aircraft Regiment, two combat engineering regiments (24th and 25th Engineering Regiments), the 26th Communications Regiment, two armoured battalions, two artillery battalions, and two Long Khánh provincial infantry battalions. On April 3, 1975, the 4th Army Corps Command came up with two options for attack; the first option would involve capturing all enemy outposts in the surrounding areas, and isolating the town centre in the process. If the opportunity arose, the 4th Army Corps would launch a full frontal assault on the town centre to capture all of Xuan Loc. In the second option, if enemy forces in Xuan Loc did not have the strength to resist, the 4th Army Corps would strike directly at the town centre using infantry units, with armoured and artillery units in support.
In March 1975 as the North Vietnamese 3rd Army Corps attacked Ban Me Thuot in the Central Highlands, the North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps also initiated their own operations against South Vietnamese installations in Tây Ninh and Bình Dương, which were located in the western regions of South Vietnam. Unlike the previous three years, South Vietnamese defences around Tây Ninh and Bình Dương were significantly weakened due to the lack of manpower and resources. Even though Tây Ninh and Bình Dương did not play a significant role in the defensive posture of South Vietnam, large formations of South Vietnamese army units made their way into those areas as a result of the early defeats in 1975. Tây Ninh became a refuge for elements of the ARVN 25th Infantry Division, four armoured brigades and two ranger battalions. Bình Dương, on the other hand, hosted the ARVN 5th Infantry Division, one ranger battalion and one armoured brigade. To stop South Vietnamese military units from gathering in Tây Ninh and Bình Dương, and thereby regrouping for further resistance, the North Vietnamese decided to finally capture those regions.
The North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps Command selected Dầu Tiếng–Chon Thanh as the first target for their operation, as it was the weakest point in the South Vietnamese defensive line in the north-west area. South Vietnam maintained four regional force battalions (35th, 304th, 312th and 352nd Battalions) which totalled 2,600 soldiers in the area, along with one armoured brigade and ten 105 mm artillery guns. The military zone of Dầu Tiếng–Chon Thanh located in area adjacent to the three provinces of Tây Ninh, Bình Dương and Binh Long. The task of capturing Dầu Tiếng–Chon Thanh was entrusted to the North Vietnamese 9th Infantry Division, whose strength were bolstered by the 16th Infantry Regiment, the 22nd Armoured Battalion, one artillery battalion and one air-defence battalion. At 5 am on March 11, the North Vietnamese 9th Infantry Division commenced their attack on Dầu Tiếng. South Vietnamese artillery positions in Rung Nan, Bau Don and Cha La were the primary targets of the 9th Infantry Division on the first day of the attack.
On the afternoon of March 11, ARVN General Le Nguyen Khang ordered the 345th Armoured Squadron to move out from Bau Don to relieve the military zone of Dau Tienh, but they were defeated by the North Vietnamese 16th Infantry Regiment at Suoi Ong Hung, and were forced to retreat to their base. At the same time, South Vietnamese artillery units at Bau Don and Rung Nan were subdued by elements of the 9th Infantry Division, so they were unable to return fire. By March 13, the North Vietnamese army was in complete control of the Dầu Tiếng military zone. After three hours of fighting, the North Vietnamese 3/9th Infantry Division also captured South Vietnamese positions at Vuon Chuoi, Nga ba Sac, Cau Tau and Ben Cui. The ARVN 3rd Brigade had planned to retake Dầu Tiếng using elements of the 5th Infantry Division, but President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu ordered them to pull back and defend Truong Mit, Bau Don and Tây Ninh instead.
On March 24, two regiments from the North Vietnamese 9th Infantry Division, in coordination with two provincial infantry battalions from Bình Phước, attacked Chon Thanh with full force but were repeatedly driven back from South Vietnamese defensive lines. On March 31, the North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps sent the 273rd Regiment to bolster the strength of the 9th Infantry Division, and one artillery battalion equipped with 15 artillery guns. Following the arrival of fresh reinforcements, the North Vietnamese army continued their assault on the military zone of Chon Thanh. South Vietnam responded by deploying the 3rd Armoured Brigade to relief Chon Thanh, but they were stopped by elements of the North Vietnamese 9th Infantry Division along Route 13. To avoid destruction, all surviving members from the ARVN 31st Ranger Battalion retreated to Bau Don in the east. On April 2, the North Vietnamese army captured Chon Thanh; they claimed to have killed 2,134 enemy soldiers, as well as capturing 472 men, and shot down 16 aircraft. In addition, North Vietnam captured 30 military vehicles (including eight tanks) and about 1,000 guns (including five artillery pieces) of various kinds. With the province of Binh Long firmly in their hands, the North Vietnamese army then set their sights on Xuan Loc.
Defense and fall of Xuan Loc
After the North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps successfully captured all key objectives surrounding Xuan Loc in Long Khánh Province, they had four days to prepare for the final push against the ARVN 18th Infantry Division. North Vietnamese Major General Hoang Cam personally took control of the operation; he decided to launch a full-frontal assault on Xuan Loc using his infantry, tank and artillery units from the north and northwest. Colonel Bui Cat Vu, deputy commander of the 4th Army Corps, would dictate operations from the east. While the North Vietnamese were closing in on Xuan Loc, ARVN General Le Minh Dao and the chief of Long Khánh Province, Colonel Nguyen Van Phuc, was also busy lining up their units in anticipation of the enemy onslaught. Prior to the battle, General Le Minh Dao told foreign media that: "I am determined to hold Xuan Loc. I don’t care how many divisions the Communist will send against me, I will smash them all! The world shall see the strength and skill of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam".
At 5.40 am on April 9, 1975, the North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps began bombarding South Vietnamese positions around the town of Xuan Loc. From the north of Xuan Loc, the PAVN 341st Infantry Division captured the ARVN communications centre and the local police station after more than one hour of heavy fighting. However, all North Vietnamese units moving down from the north were forced to stop when elements of the ARVN 52nd Task Force counter-attacked from the south. From the east, the North Vietnamese 7th Infantry Division advanced on South Vietnamese positions without tank support, so they sustained heavy casualties in the initial stages of the fighting. At 8 am the 4th Army Corps Command sent eight tanks to support the 7th Infantry Division, but three were destroyed by entrenched South Vietnamese soldiers at Bao Chanh A.
By midday, the North Vietnamese 209th and 270th Infantry Regiments captured the Headquarters of the ARVN 18th Infantry Division and the Governor's Residence, which was defended by the ARVN 43rd and 48th Infantry Regiments, setting ablaze seven South Vietnamese tanks in the process. In the south, the North Vietnamese 6th Infantry Division attacked South Vietnamese positions on Highway No.1 from Hung Nghia to Me Bong Con, where they destroyed 11 tanks from the ARVN 322nd Armoured Brigade. Throughout the day on April 9, the ARVN 18th Infantry Division staged counter-attacks on North Vietnamese flanks to slow down their enemies’ momentum, especially movements from the north and northwest.
Between April 10 and 11, elements of the North Vietnamese 7th Infantry Division tried to destroy the ARVN 18th Infantry Division, the 52nd Task Force and the 5 Armoured Cavalry, but on each occasion they were forced to stop and deal with enemy counter-attacks on their flanks. In the northwest the North Vietnamese 226th and 270th Infantry Regiments, from the 341st Infantry Division, were also forced to deal with counter-attacks staged by the ARVN 43rd Infantry Regiment and the 322nd Armoured Brigade. During those two days, South Vietnamese fighter-bombers from the 5th Air Force Division flew more than 200 bombing sorties in support of the ARVN 18th Infantry Division. On the night of April 11, General Le Minh Dao secretly relocated the headquarters of the ARVN 18th Infantry Division to the military zone of Tan Phong, to continue his resistance. Colonel Pham Van Phuc, on the other hand, also moved his headquarters to Nui Thi.
On April 12, the ARVN General Staff made the decision to bolster the defences at Xuan Loc with units drawn from the ARVN general reserve. Subsequently, the ARVN 1st Airborne Brigade arrived at the Bao Dinh rubber plantation, while two marine battalions defended the eastern corridor leading to Bien Hoa. In addition, Tan Phong and Dau Giay received reinforcements from the 33rd Ranger Battalion, 8/5th Infantry Division, 8th Artillery Battalion and three armoured brigades (315th, 318th and 322nd Armoured Brigades). As the reinforcements were making their way onto the battlefield, South Vietnamese fighter-bombers from Bien Hoa and Tan Son Nhat flew between 80 and 120 combat sorties per day to support the defenders at Xuan Loc. At 2 pm on April 12, South Vietnamese C-130 Hercules dropped two CBU-55 cluster bomb Fuel Air Explosive on North Vietnamese positions in the town of Xuan Vinh, close to Xuan Loc, killing about 200 civilians and North Vietnamese soldiers. However, the ARVN also suffered casualties from the blast.
On April 13, General Tran Van Tra, commander of the National Liberation Front Armed Forces (Viet Cong) arrived at the headquarters of the 4th Army Corps. During the meeting with other commanders, General Tran Van Tra decided to alter certain aspects of the combat operation; the 6th Infantry Division and elements of the 341st Infantry Division would attack Dau Giay, which was the weakest point in the defensive line around Xuan Loc, set up blocking positions along Highway No.2 which leads to Bà Rịa–Vũng Tàu, and Highway No.1 between Xuan Loc and Bien Hoa. On the same day, the North Vietnamese 2nd Army Corps ordered the 95B Infantry Regiment to join the units of the 4th Army Corps, in their efforts to capture Xuan Loc. As North Vietnamese commanders began to implement their new strategy, the South Vietnamese military declared it had successfully repulsed the "Communist attack" on Xuan Loc, thereby ending a period of continuous defeats. President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu, buoyed by the fierce resistance of his army at Xuan Loc, announced that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam had "recovered its fighting ability" to defend the country.
On April 15, the situation on the battlefield began to change as North Vietnamese artillery stopped their shelling of Xuan Loc, but started pounding Bien Hoa instead. In just one day, the South Vietnamese 3rd Air Force Division at Bien Hoa was forced to cease all operations due to continuous North Vietnamese artillery bombardments. To continue their support of ground troops at Xuan Loc, the South Vietnamese air force mobilised the 4th Air Force Division based at Tra Noc to conduct further missions. On the same day, the North Vietnamese 6th Infantry Division and the 95B Infantry Regiment defeated a combined ARVN formation which included the 52nd Task Force and the 13th Armoured Squadron west of Xuan Loc. Between April 16 and 17, the North Vietnamese 6th Infantry Division and the 95B Infantry Regiment also defeated the ARVN 8th Task Force and 3rd Armoured Brigade, when the South Vietnamese tried to recapture the military zone of Dau Giay. Around Xuan Loc the ARVN 43rd and 48th Infantry Regiments, as well as the 1st Airborne Brigade, suffered heavy casualties as North Vietnamese infantry units attacked them from all sides.
With Dau Giay and all the main roads under enemies control, Xuan Loc was completely isolated, the 18th cut off from reinforcements and surrounded by the North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps. On April 19, the ARVN General Staff ordered General Le Minh Dao to evacuate the 18th Infantry Division and other support units from Xuan Loc, in order to continue their resistance elsewhere. The ARVN 18th Infantry Division, which was the main unit defending Xuan Loc, was ordered to defend Bien Hoa. On April 20, under the cover of heavy rain, South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians began pulling out from Xuan Loc, in a convoy of about 200 military vehicles. On April 21, the town centre of Xuan Loc was completely abandoned, with the ARVN 1st Airborne Brigade being the last unit to be evacuated from the area. At 4 am on April 21, the 3/1st Airborne Brigade was completely destroyed by the North Vietnamese army at the hamlet of Suoi Ca. By the end of the day Xuan Loc was under North Vietnamese control, and the gateway to Saigon was finally opened.
Following their costly victory at Xuan Loc, the North Vietnamese army effectively controlled two-thirds of South Vietnam's territory. The loss of Xuan Loc dealt a severe blow to the military strength of South Vietnam, which had lost almost every unit from its general reserve. On April 18, 1975, General Nguyen Van Toan, commander of the ARVN III Corps, informed President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu that the South Vietnamese forces at Xuan Loc had been beaten and South Vietnam's armed forces could only hold out for a few more days as a result of their losses on the battlefield. According to Vietnam's official account of the battle, about 2,036 South Vietnamese soldiers were either killed or wounded and another 2,731 were captured. However, the 18th ARVN Division alone suffered over 30 percent casualties of 12,000 soldiers committed to the battle, not to mention other forces. Total casualties on the Communist side are largely unknown, but the 4th Army Corps alone claimed to have suffered 460 killed in action, and another 1,428 wounded. While Le Minh Dao claim that the battle has cost the North Vietnamese over 50,000 KIA and 370 tanks destroyed, American estimates only put North Vietnamese casualties at around 10 percent of those figures with 5,000 troops killed and/or wounded and 37 tanks destroyed.
In the days following the loss of Xuan Loc, there was still much debate in both houses of South Vietnam's National Assembly about the country's wartime policies. Pro-war elements in the National Assembly argued South Vietnam should fight until the very end, in the belief that the United States would eventually give the country the necessary amount of aid to resist the North Vietnamese. Anti-war elements, on the other hand, strongly opposed the idea. They believed the Government of South Vietnam should negotiate with the Communists, in order to avoid a catastrophic defeat. Despite their differences of opinion, members in both houses of South Vietnam's National Assembly agreed that Nguyễn Văn Thiệu should be held responsible for the country's dire military and political situation, because his policies had allowed the enemies to easily penetrate South Vietnam's military defences.
Finally at 8 pm on April 21, 1975, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu officially resigned from his position as the President of the Republic of Vietnam upon learning that Xuan Loc had fallen that morning. In his final effort to save South Vietnam, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu gambled his political career by sending the very last units of the South Vietnamese army to Xuan Loc in an attempt to hold off the North Vietnamese 4th Army Corps. Ultimately, however, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu's effort came too late. The defeat at Xuan Loc only added salt into the wound of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu's political career, as the National Assembly grew hostile towards his handling of the war. One day after Nguyễn Văn Thiệu's departure to Taiwan, Trần Văn Hương was appointed as South Vietnam's President, and he was ordered to seek a negotiated peace with North Vietnam at any cost, to the disappointment of many in South Vietnam's political elite, who argued that the situation could have been different if Thieu had gone earlier.
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