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This post is numbered fifty-one in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.

The second of the Seven Firefights in Vietnam is a considerably shorter action than the first. While the battle at Landing Zone X-Ray was fought over days, the bulk of the action in the second battle, “Convoy Ambush on Highway 1” was winding down after the first forty-five minutes or so. As the book reads, it sounds like an impossible combination of factors conspired to produce this battle. At least, it sounds impossible unless you consider this is one of hundreds of similar small-unit actions, the rest of which were not unique enough to be featured in Seven Firefights in Vietnam.

The book gives a quick but informative background to the battle. The 11th Armored Cavalry deployed to Vietnam in September, 1966. Their mission was a specific response to the insecurity of the highways in South Vietnam at the time. The so-called Blackhorse regiment were outfitted with up-armored M113s plus three companies of M-48 Patton tanks. They had also undergone specific anti-ambush training, practicing and preparing their reaction to ambushes while escorting convoys. The regiment immediately went to work, spreading itself thin while providing highway security and simultaneously building a base camp near the Đồng Nai provincial capital of Xuân Lộc. In early November, the U.S. Army received intelligence that the Viet Cong was targeting the lightly-defended but resource-rich base camp. In response, additional supplies and far-flung units were summoned home.

It seems like a good bit of dumb luck was involved in making sure that an extra-large convoy was headed toward the base at exactly the time the VC set up a complex ambush on that highway. No doubt the VC were aware that convoys moved to supply the base but it was only the intelligence of the VC movements that resulted in an extra-long convoy – more than eighty vehicles, by one estimate – passing through the ambush zone. The U.S. Army hadn’t planned for this super-convoy and weren’t entirely prepared for its scale. The escort commander, Lt. Neil L. Keltner, had but two platoons of the light-armor M113. He did find an additional vehicle, riding with the convoy itself, giving him a total of nine combat vehicles providing defensive combat capabilities. Although he couldn’t know it, these nine vehicles would be fighting in a 1.5 km ambush zone against two VC battalions and a regimental headquarters, all experienced guerrilla fighters.

From this point forward though, lady luck switched sides. As the convoy was beginning to move, a coded radio transmission was intercepted indicated that the 274th Regimental headquarters was in play and pinpointed its location to the stretch of Highway 1 where the convoy was about to move. Rapid reaction, within a minute of receiving the intelligence, launched a pair of helicopters for air support and provided warning to the convoy escorts, even though the size of the ambush was not fully appreciated. The result was that, instead of being surprised and trapped in the killing zone, much of the convoy raced through the ambush, guns ablaze at the roadside attackers. Perhaps even the paucity of information helped the Americans. It was assumed that the ambush forces were small in number and would be composed infantry small-arms – more of a harassment than a full-scale threat. Such an attack could be bypassed so, with the convoy prepared to run the gauntlet, as much of a third of the vehicles made it through the killing zone before the VC began to use their heavy weapons (recoiless rifles). The tail end of the convoy was able to halt before entering the killing zone. Furthermore, only minutes after the ambush began, a trio of F-100s were diverted from a scheduled mission and were over the battlefield ready to deliver more air support.

Given the size of the ambush and the scarcity of forces on the U.S. side, the Americans came out very well. Seven men did lose their lives and the Army lost four trucks and two M113s. Another eight soldiers were wounded.

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The Tour of Duty map provides an excellent picture of the ambush zone.

Opening up this scenario (Ambush at Xa Xuan Loc) in Squad Battles: Tour of Duty, I was immediately impressed with what I saw. The maps printed in Seven Firefights aren’t very clear in my copy, so what I saw in-game was a well-illustrated version of what I had just tried to imagine while reading. The M113s are represented one-for-one but, while there are lots and lots of trucks, the total length of the convoy is likely underrepresented. From that initial impression onward, however, my feelings for this one went downhill.

The scenario is six turns long, which means we are only looking at the initial reaction to the ambush. Engaged forces include only the vehicle-mounted weaponry on the M113s; there is no representation of infantry units or passengers. The scenario does include the arrival of the two Huey gunships although, when I played the scenario, the Hueys didn’t show up until turn six, meaning there was no chance to use them. I’m going to assume that the air support is tied to a randomly-varying delay as it would make little sense to include units that arrive on-map but are impossible to employ. Request for fixed-wing support is limited to the commander of the Armored Cavalry. In my first run-through, the command M113 was knocked out in between the time when he requested air support and when he could direct the strikes. That meant that my airstrikes were called off. More about this later.

The result was an American disaster. Huge vehicle losses, both in terms of the transports and the escorts. I lost my one infantry unit – the leader shown in the above screenshot. The lopsidedness of the victory, and the fact that the actual result was just as lopsided in the opposite direction, makes me wonder about how the modelling can be so far off. As with the battle at Ap Bau Bang, depicted in A Change of Tune, the M113s were actually very effective and rapidly moved up and down the column to break up the ambush. VC fire was effective, causing individual casualties as well as taking out two of the vehicles, but the M113s were able to prevail. Part of the reason, it is figured, is that the VC did not expect the vehicles to be as effective and deadly as they were. The insurgents were used to the transport version of the M113 and may have been surprised and neutralized by the better-equipped versions employed by the Blackhorse regiment.

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Mind the gaps. The Steel Panthers take is Steel Panthers -ugly, but from the get-go adds details that improve the experience.

Unhappy, as I was, with the Tour of Duty version, I tried the Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank scenario (Ambush on Highway 1) as well. In stark contrast, the initial impression of graphics and terrain representation in Steel Panthers is not favorable; and rarely is. The graphics are dated, the terrain bizarrely geometrical, and the scenario uses contrived terrain to fit the scenario’s parameters. For example, in both the above and below screenshots, you can see the use of “stream” hexes to represent the drainage ditches along Highway 1.

Also in contrast, the experience did improve as I got into it. Right away certain aspects of the battle, as described in Seven Firefights in Vietnam, translated themselves from the page to the gaming screen. As the convoy moved, it began to bunch up in some places and develop gaps in others. The convoy was described as containing “about every size and shape [vehicle] in the U.S. Army inventory,” making coordination difficult. Seven Firefights cites this as a factor in the battle.

ambush3

Frequent overflights by a spotter aircraft helped me identify where the enemy was hidden. Note also, though, that I have a lot of trucks on fire even though the scenario is just getting started.

Similarly, another key aspect of the battle’s outcome, shown in the above screenshot, was represented. Because command was alerted to the location of the ambush, Captain Robert Smith* was was in the air above the convoy even as the shooting started. Radio discussions between air support and intelligence meant that the air units had, in some cases, even better intelligence than Lt. Keltner commanding from the ground. Tellingly, Keltner lost the use of his radio for a portion of his battle and had to transfer his command to a new vehicle. During this time overhead observers were able to continue coordination of support.

In the end, the Steel Panthers version of the battle was also particularly bloody. I lost 23 convoy trucks and 4 of my M113s. Unlike the Tour of Duty version, Steel Panthers models the crews and passengers for the vehicles and I wound up losing 89 personnel to the enemy. This high number includes the drivers and passengers in the unarmored trucks and jeeps. The game ranked it a “draw,” which, for me at least, can soften a rough time during scenario play – I feel that while I could have done better, I also could have done far worse.

Massive losses aside, the experience of playing the scenario is actually a good one. When the scenario starts, you have this awful feeling of being overwhelmed. Trucks are blowing up left and right and the VC’s recoiless rifles can knock out an escort vehicle before you even have time to shoot back. However, matching the narrative of the battle, the M113s that survived had excellent mobility and could move about the column. When the Hueys arrive, the nature of the fight flipped. It becomes my turn to move around the map wiping out the enemy while they have little recourse. The Steel Panthers M113s use some kind of grenade launchers (modeled in the game as “Claymore Mines”) that makes them very effective when overrunning insurgent infantry.

So why the huge gap between historical results and game results that persists across the different platforms (despite the very different gameplay experience)? Well, one possibility is that I played the scenarios incorrectly. I won’t dismiss this entirely; if you’ve read my posts before you’ll know I can be pretty inept at beating some of these scenarios. However, in both games I found that in the opening turns my losses exceeded the historical losses. It doesn’t seem possible that I could have missed a tactical approach (whether obvious or obscure) that could have avoided that result. It is also possible that these scenarios were never intended to be historical simulations. Eliminating certain factors which, in real life, caused the Americans to have an overwhelming victory could serve the game by turning this historical encounter into a well-balanced, difficult-to-win scenario. It seems that, for players, solving that challenge is more fun than meticulously recreating the historical result. This, too, doesn’t quite explain everything. The order-of-battles, map, and positioning certainly seem to be historically based (within the limitations of these two games to do so).

Looking beyond those first two explations, this suggests that the modelling within these games are either a) more lethal than reality or, b) biased toward the insurgency, or possibly a mix of both. It does seem to be a pattern across a number of different scenarios. One possibility is that it is morale-based, as I alluded to above. I would imagine that the performance of guerrillas forces, particularly against U.S. and Free World Allied units, would have been hit and miss. Even if so, a scenario rule that said you had 50-50 chance of all VC being worthless might be accurate, but it would be a game-killer. So perhaps the reason is that, in game, the VC are always at the top of the potential whereas in real-life they were thrown off their game by morale factors. In this case, the fact they were surprised by the effectiveness of the M113s certainly blunted their attack.

A similar calculus applies to equipment. Communist equipment was not of the highest reliability. When reading The Boys of ’67, I recall several actions where the VC grenades were described as mostly harmless. They often did not explode and, even when they did, did so with reduced force. But while the odds may have been in your favor, that doesn’t mean you wanted to be sitting atop one when it went off. I wonder if the games might over-represent the effectiveness of the VC equipment, again necessary for good gameplay if not entirely historically accurate.

Another possible source of error when comparing game results to after-action-reports is one of definition. Consider, in this case, the board game origins of games such as these two. In many a cardboard game, the result of a combat action is often all-or-none. You roll the dice and either the target of the attack survives or is removed from the board (it might even say KIA in the combat table). But does that really mean “killed,” as in everybody dies? In a tactical game, removing a counter really means that unit is unavailable as a fighting force through the end of the scenario (perhaps on the order of another 20 minutes, give or take). That could mean killed or wounded, but it could also mean scattered, or out of ammunition, or cut off from command. Sometimes these other factors are more explicitly modeled but the fact is, if a counter is going to be non-functional for the remainder of the game for whatever reason, you might as well remove it from the board. In Seven Firefights in Vietnam, the author describes the harrowing effect of recoiless rifle hits, particularly on the armored M113s. In most cases, however, while damaging, they don’t result in “kills.” Steel Panthers provides an explosion sound effect and a smoking wreck when a vehicle gets removed from play, but that is certainly a simplification of the wide range of complex conditions that takes a vehicle out of a fight.

Another notable point from the Seven Firefights in Vietnam is that, while VC rockets are mentioned in the narrative, none of the killed vehicles are attributed to RPGs. In both Steel Panthers and Squad Battles, on the other hand, RPGs are very common to the communist forces and result in a large number of the casualties, particular to the softer vehicular targets. It makes me wonder whether, given the 1966 scenario date, the the RPGs are either over prevalent or over-powered.

Whatever the case, this is mostly me taking myself too seriously. Particularly the Steel Panthers version of this scenario is a decent representation of this battle. It provides a nice, and fun, companion to the chapter in Seven Firefights in Vietnam.

A second ambush, taking place a bit more than a week later, also provoked a response and pitched battle during this the this operation. I explore that in another article. You could also return to the the master post

*With his overhead view, he is the one that provided both the estimate of the number of vehicles as well as the “every size and shape” quote.