On the Boloven Plateau, the Vietnamese forces had to move in similar conditions. Photo of 1970, the place is unknown, but the relief is similar to the waterfalls of the Boloven Plateau
A month and a half after Wang Pao launched his attack on the Pitcher Valleyknown as operation Kou Kiet, VNA units in southern Laos conducted an operation that, although unsuccessful, created a new front for the CIA and the royalist government of Laos. This front required people and resources, and also stimulated the Americans and their allies to continue the policy of scattering forces in different, unrelated areas.
At first glance, unlike the fighting in central Laos, operations in the south could immediately lead to the blocking of the Trail. But the fact is that even the Vietnamese could then unblock the blocked area by simply transferring reserves along the Trail. It was necessary to "plug" the entrances to the "Trail" from the territory of Vietnam, and for this it was necessary to occupy and hold central Laos, and then advance from there to the south.
The Americans and the royalists chased two hares at the same time. Their attempts to actively act in the southern part of the country, without solving the problems in the central one, have taken place before. Then they will continue to do so. But the episode in question will be launched by the Vietnamese. We are talking about the battles for Thateng, which the Americans had a code name: Operation Diamond Arrow.
Diamond Arrow on the Boloven Plateau
In the southern part of Laos, where the country's territory expands after the narrow isthmus between Vietnam and Thailand, the Boloven Plateau is located - a rather large plateau by local standards. Today, the plateau is known for its beautiful natural landscapes, but then its value was measured in completely different categories - important sections of the Trail passed through the plateau. The mountainous and poor communications of Laos made any seedy road extremely important, and on the Boloven Plateau there were many of these roads and there were also many of their intersections.
Boloven Plateau on Laos Map
For Vietnam, this region of Laos was of critical importance - it was in South Laos that several “lines” of Vietnamese communications starting north (in the narrow part of Laos, 70-100 kilometers south of the Kuvshin Valley) expanded to a developed network of roads and paths, which included and Lao roads, and in many places that entered the territory of South Vietnam, as well as Cambodia, through whose territory access was also made to South Vietnam, to other parts of it.
Keeping this area under the control of Patet Lao was critical to Vietnam. At a time when a significant part of the royalist forces was constrained by continuous fighting in central Laos, the Vietnamese command saw an opportunity to expand control over communications in South Laos. For this, in principle, there were good prerequisites - Vietnam was superior to the royalists in its human resources by several times, the Vietnamese troops were also superior to the Laotians. In addition, the poor communications of central Laos did not allow more troops to be deployed there than the Vietnamese had already deployed, and this provided free reserves for operations in other places.
In April 1969, advanced VNA units of small numbers appeared on the outskirts of the town of Thateng, an important settlement in which routes (roads) 23 and 16 intersected. Mastering this point greatly facilitated the logistics of the Vietnamese, which would be carried out in this case along public roads. In addition, and this was also important, the city had an airfield used by the royalists. The royalist garrison in the city fled, surrendering it without resistance. The Vietnamese, having occupied the city, immediately began to use the roads going through it for their own purposes; they did not leave to their garrison, withdrawing troops from a potential strike, leaving only a minimum of forces to monitor the situation. This did not suit either the royalists or the CIA.
Thateng and surroundings today. In those years, route 23 “going down” to the south did not enter route 20, but continued until Thateng
On September 20, four companies of the royalist infantry and three more companies of irregular formations were transferred by American helicopters to the hills near Thateng and from there developed an attack on the city. However, he was almost not guarded; the Vietnamese did not hold any significant troops in it. Leaving the garrison in the city, the royalist troops went to Salavan, a city north of Thateng, unconditionally controlled by the royalist government.
Now the Vietnamese needed to counterattack and they counterattacked - on November 27, 1969, the Vietnamese unit, from the forces passing according to American documents, as the “968 group” secretly moved to the positions of royalists in the city and suddenly attacked with forces to the battalion. Alas, we do not yet know exactly which troops participated in the assault; this can be clarified only from the Vietnamese documents. Presumably, 968 is either a division number, or a command similar to the 559 Group, which commanded all the units that provided the Trail.
The royalists put up stubborn resistance and held the city until December 13th. By that time, the advancing troops had already grown to a regiment. On December 13, the Vietnamese brought into battle just three infantry battalions. The royalist defense immediately collapsed and they fled. Everything seemed to go on as usual: the Vietnamese would kill them during the persecution and occupy the city. However, events soon took on an extraordinary character. The royalist 46th volunteer battalion (Bataillon Volontaires 46), fleeing the Vietnamese, suddenly went to the old French fortress of colonial times, turned by the royalists into a stronghold, but not occupied by anyone yet.
The city by that time had already been abandoned by the royalists, and the VNA infantry was advancing on their heels. It is difficult to say what happened - either the royalists realized that they could be caught up and killed, as happened more than once - the Vietnamese always ahead of all their enemies on foot in difficult terrain, or simply the royalists saw an opportunity to sit relatively safely behind strong, inaccessible walls , with mines and barbed wire, seeing this as a chance to survive, or simply decided to give the enemy a normal battle, but the fact remains - having lost 40 people dead, 30 missing and a hundred wounded, the battalion stopped the promiscuous and I took this in advance ready to defend a strong point.
Fortunately for the royalists, they had complete order with radio communications, and shortly after their soldiers entered the fortress, light airplanes from the Raven controllers, who were recruited from American mercenaries and Lao operators, circled over the Lao War many times. guidance (however, the crews could be other, for example, Thai-American). It finally occurred to the American command that the Laotians cannot fight the Vietnamese without the American aviation not only in central Laos, but also in southern too. The Ravens managed to discover the battle formations of the Vietnamese infantry, which, in order not to bring the matter to heavy losses, was preparing to take the fort on the move, until the royalists dug in there for real.
Everything seemed to work out that way. The Vietnamese very quickly cut the entire barbed wire and with fantastic speed made passages in minefields to attack the fortress. Most likely, the fortress would have fallen, but on the same day, on the tip of the Ravens, the Ganship AS-130 Spectrum appeared over the battlefield.
Alas, the Vietnamese did not have significant means of air defense. All night long, the Ganship literally flooded the Vietnamese battle formations with the fire of 20 mm automatic cannons. The American air reconnaissance from the Nakhon Fan base in Thailand worked intensively at night, and in the morning attack aircraft AT-28 of the Royal Laos Air Force joined Ganship. The next three days for the VNA infantry were just hell. If during the day the stormtroopers ironed them, then at night the Spectrum again flew in with its quick-firing guns. According to American data, by December 18, the Vietnamese had lost nearly 500 people dead.
A flurry of fire from the sky was such a factor with which the Vietnamese infantry could not do anything. In addition, on December 18, it turned out that south of the battle zone, near the city of Atopa, irregular royalist troops occupied all the roads, making it impossible to quickly deploy reinforcements for the Vietnamese, nor to leave the roads. It was more impossible to stay in the city under such conditions and the VNA infantry left him on December 19. The 46th battalion left the fort, occupying the city, but did not pursue the Vietnamese. By that time, the city existed purely nominally - literally there was not a single building left in it, except for the local pagoda and the fortress itself. Without exception, all the other houses were destroyed by air strikes.
The Vietnamese, however, were not going to leave at all. Having rushed to the heights dominating the city, they entrenched themselves, disguised themselves and began to conduct regular mortar shelling of the airfield, preventing the enemy from using it. This went on for almost all of December and January. From the end of January, however, the intensity of US air strikes began to increase. The Vietnamese, for their part, sent additional reinforcements to the area. On February 1, 1970, the VNA launched a new assault on Thateng - the soldiers leaked to the outskirts of the city and were able to covertly place 82-mm mortar and recoilless guns there. Under the cover of their fire, the infantry launched a massive attack.
This attack was hard on the volunteer battalion. By the end of February 5th, his units again left the city and rolled back into the fortress under the fire of the Vietnamese. 250 people remained alive, morale was “at zero”, the battalion was on the verge of mass desertion. The Vietnamese did not retreat, again clearing the approaches to the fortress and approaching its walls.
And again, aviation entered the business. "Crows" spotted from the air even the muzzle flame of a Vietnamese weapons, and mortars were discovered even when they fired from buildings through the gaps in the roofs, immediately pointing them at the attacks of American fighter bombers, this time the F-100. At the same time, F-4 Phantom fighters launched an air mining operation, driving the Vietnamese into the corridors between the minefields, and forcing them to go to the firing points of the royalists “head-on”, without the possibility of retreat. The Vietnamese removed these mines very quickly, but the Ravens reported this and the fighters immediately scattered new ones. Mining began on February 6th, and continued on the 7th and 8th.
One of the Ravens FAC aircraft in Laos. The contribution of these aircraft owners to the holding of Thateng was decisive.
The Vietnamese found themselves in a hopeless situation - it was possible to retreat only along the sweeping corridors between the minefields, to use something heavier than a machine gun meant to immediately get an air strike at their firing point, there was no way to get out from under cover, but even in shelters from bombing people were constantly killed Going forward meant an attack at full height on the firing points of the royalists in the fortress and also under air strikes. The advance of the Vietnamese stopped. On February 123, American S transporters appeared over the battlefield, setting up wire fences from the air, further enhancing the defenses of the fortress.
On February 11, Americans landed the 7th Royalist Infantry Battalion, the best unit of the Royalist army in the region, which took up a number of hills from which Vietnamese positions were viewed from the vicinity of Thateng. Using mortars and recoilless guns, the 7th battalion organized a powerful fire to suppress the Vietnamese firing positions in the city and nearby. They managed to stop the Vietnamese shelling of the airdrome and almost immediately additional reinforcements began to be thrown to the Thateng airdrome, and the removal of the wounded began in the opposite direction.
By March 6th, everything was already theoretically finished, but the remnants of the Vietnamese troops made another attempt to take the fortress. On March 9, VNA infantry companies rose in their last attack. Under heavy fire, without the ability to maneuver or take cover on the ground, under mortar and artillery fire and regular air strikes, with mines on their way, the Vietnamese infantry tried with all its might to approach the fortress.
But the miracle did not happen. Choking under heavy fire, the Vietnamese rolled back, giving the royalists and their American patrons victory in the battle.
Vietnamese infantry in battle, 1970. Specifically, this photo was taken not in Laos, but in Vietnam, in Quang Tri, after the strike of B-52 bombers and before their next strike on the same troops. In Laos, it was about the same.
The royalists celebrated the victory. True, the 46th battalion was in such a deplorable state that almost all of its soldiers soon deserted, unable to withstand the tension of the battles with the Vietnamese troops. The 7th battalion with all its strength held Thateng and the intersections of routes on 23 and 16 until April 4, 1970, after which, leaving the ruins of the city to a weak garrison, he went to the permanent deployment point in the city of Pakse, to the south-east of Thatheng. The Vietnamese attempt to expand its communications on the Trail failed with great losses. Their exact size is unknown, but we are talking about many hundreds of soldiers and commanders.
The CIA celebrated the victory, albeit thanks to American air power, but the royalists won at least somewhere, without any superiority in numbers. True, the war for central Laos by that time was almost lost, before the end Vietnamese counteroffensive in the Valley of Pitchers a month remained, and it was already rolling towards the long Thieng, which was crucial for keeping all of Laos, so the consolation in holding Thatheng was weak.
Nevertheless, this operation, in modern terms, has set a trend - now the CIA, realizing the impossibility of resolving the issue by forceful capture of the whole country by the royalists, has begun to devote more and more energy to actions on the “path” itself, as if cutting it without completely isolating Laos from the Vietnamese troops were possible.
Soon, the Americans planned a new operation.
Operation Maeng Da and the Honorable Dragon
Soon after the defeat in the Valley of Pitchers and the victory in Thatheng, the Americans raided the Trail in South Laos.
The operation was carried out by the CIA office in Savannaket, and without coordinating it with a resident in Laos. According to the rules adopted by the CIA, local CIA missions could carry out operations of a battalion scale without coordination, no more; here it was planned to enter into battle first three battalions, and then another.
The main striking force of the operation was supposed to use the so-called 1st Mobile Battalion (Mobile 1). Collected mainly from urban residents who were not accustomed to the hardships and deprivations of trench life, this battalion aroused contempt even among the CIA instructors themselves. Someone hung a nickname in the local dialect “Maeng Da” on the recruits of this battalion, which generally means the Thai Kratom tree, whose leaves contain substances with an action similar to some opioids, and which were used in Laos as a natural stimulant and flavoring at the same time, but in general, in the street jargon in Laos and Thailand of those times, “Maeng Da” is a “pimp variety”, such a name was fixed to leaf powder that could be smoked or sniffed. Apparently recruits and shallows have a lot in common with this substance.
The same name was assigned to the first operation, in which the 1st Mobile Battalion was to participate. Fully sponsored by the CIA, the battalion had 550 personnel, which sharply distinguished it from the usual irregular battalions trained by the CIA, where there were rarely more than 300 fighters.
It was such battalions from the local population living in the provinces of Khammunan and Savannaket that were supposed to operate together with the 1st Mobile in the planned operation, their code names were “Black”, “Blue” and “White”.
The purpose of the operation was to capture the Vietnamese transshipment warehouse in the vicinity of the most important city for Vietnamese logistics, Chepone, not far from the Vietnamese border.
According to the plan of the operation, all the battalions, except for the "White", were to meet in the village of Vang Tai, and united in a strike group under the general command, move to their destination, finding and attacking the "Communists". As the operation would develop, the agent of the CIA, who was part of the group, should give the command to enter the reserve of the White Battalion.
The figure shows the location of Chepone (underlined), Wang Tai and the advancement of royalists from Wang Tai.
At first, everything went on like this, the “Blue” and “Black” battalions advanced from the place of deployment to Wang Tai, where the 2st mobile battalion was landed from the air on July 1. On July 9, all three battalions joined and moved southeast to the area of the combat mission. On July 10, the group had their first skirmishes with an enemy whom they definitely could not identify. The battalions moved on Chipon, and their commanders firmly expected that they would soon receive reinforcements, seeing real fighting in the shootings with the “Communists”.
They had to be disappointed the next day, when the “Black” battalion came under attack from the 9th VNA Infantry Regiment, who came from (for royalists and the CIA). The Vietnamese took the royalists by surprise and forced them to maneuver the battle, in which the latter suffered heavy losses. Basically, the “Black” battalion fell under the blow, which already at the end of the day could not hold on to the deadly Vietnamese attacks. Other battalions could not help, the Vietnamese attacked them too, just with less success.
Nevertheless, by July 16, the battalions' ability to resist had been exhausted and they retreated to the landing zone of the "White" battalion, hoping for help. But the intensity of the VNA attacks by that time was such that there could be no talk of any landing of the White Battalion. As a result, the CIA agent, who was supposed to give the command to land, canceled this landing.
On July 17, Skyrader attack aircraft and royalist AT-28s made several sorties to support the unfortunate battalions, and in one case an air strike was delivered 50 meters in front of the front line, the enemy was so close. But soon the weather turned bad and the combat sorties of the aircraft had to be stopped.
On the same day, at a briefing on current operations, the CIA Resident was surprised to learn that a CIA operation with several battalions was under Chipone, which he did not sanction but did not know anything about.
As a result of the briefing, the unit in Savannaket received an order to evacuate the “Black” battalion, not to enter “White” into the battle, to stop the operation, and organize the retreat of the two who did not suffer such heavy losses as the “Black” battalions back to Wang Tai. This was done. Along the way, the Vietnamese killed the commander of the 1st Mobile Battalion, which led to the collapse of discipline in the unit and the loss of combat effectiveness. However, the departure was a success. Later, both battalions moved south, where they were tasked with blocking route number 23, which they did, taking advantage of the absence of enemy troops in place.
It's funny, but the unit in Savannaket managed to pass it all off for success. Reports on the results of the operation indicated that while there were battles between the royalists and the 9th regiment VNA, the movement of goods along the "path" decreased sharply. This was true, and it showed the Americans that Vietnamese had a weak point in their logistics in Chipon. True, it would be worth the Americans to focus on the fact that after their protégé escaped from the battlefield, the “path” started working again. But for various reasons, this was left overs.
After this raid, the Americans began to plan a more serious offensive on Chipon.
Meanwhile, much further south in the best tradition of dispersing forces in different directions, the Americans and the Royalists conducted another raid against the VNA. During Operation Honorable Dragon (from August 31, 1970 to September 25, 1970), six royalist battalions took a weakly held Vietnamese stronghold in the vicinity of Pakse, which, according to American documents, passed as Pakse 26. The point was taken with small losses, but the Vietnamese very quickly and with little force soon returned it and attacked the royalist stronghold of Pakse 22 now. With the support of the Ganship AS-119, the royalists kept him, and we can say that the whole operation ended in nothing.
But this did not enlighten the CIA and the office of the military attache, and the raids continued. An approach was coming on Chipon, to which it was planned to pull off everything that the CIA had at that time.
To be continued ...