Steel Panthers presents us with another “base defense” style scenario. In this one, it isn’t the base of the previous example, but rather an temporary defensive position that is part of a larger road clearing operation. By attempting to disrupt the operation and striking at the base, the local Viet Cong commander tried to grab a propaganda victory. He concentrating his forces on one element of the the U.S. operation and, in doing so, he thought he could defeat U.S. armor with his Viet Cong guerrillas.
Like that previous scenario, this one seems to be correctly scaled in terms of an accurate representation of the battle. Turnwise, this scenario lasts for 45 minutes out of what was several hours of battle. It also seems to represent only the initial portion of the Viet Cong assault and so seems to restrict the actions modeled to that portion of time. Once again, it seems a bit counter-intuitive to give the player the static-defense side of the scenario. Unlike the earlier one, though, there are only a couple of turns where the automatic defensive-fire becomes annoyingly extensive. One the scenario settles down, the turns become very playable.
Although this is a “user-made” scenario, the author of this one is long-time wargaming Veteran “Wild Bill” Wilder. The purpose of this creation is to demonstrate the effective use of armor in a war where deployment of armor units ran counter to doctrine. Seeing a name like this attached to a scenario makes me think of it more in terms of a “stock” scenario than a fan production.
The actual fight was another early engagement of the recently arriving units from America. The Third Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division (the Big Red One) was in the area and high command wanted to see them tested in live operations. In the area north of Saigon, the ARVN units were hampered in their operations by Viet Cong ambushes, which would plague them as they attempted to move along the roads. This, in turn, prevented ARVN units (in this case, the 5th ARVN Division) from engaging and displacing the enemy. U.S. assistance was required to clear and secure Highway 13 for a pending 5th Division operation. Someone began referring to Highway 13 as “Thunder Road,” a name which would seem ever more appropriate as the war unfolded.
The site covered by the scenario was located central to the operation and thus provided a good location for artillery support (not represented in the scenario) and command elements for the operation. Units had been positioned there already for a day when they drew an Viet Cong dawn ambush on the morning of the 12th.
The scenario’s written introduction in Steel Panthers emphasizes the employment of maneuver and its role in the success of the American defense. Indeed, the time-period within this scenario concentrates on the initial dawn assault, which was repulsed by a series of armored-vehicle counter-charges.
Unfortunately, that’s not how I played it.
Never quite sure how Steel Panthers applies its defensive bonuses, I always figure that a moving unit is more vulnerable than a stationary unit and that this applies double when it comes to initial scenario positions. Furthermore, not knowing where the attack was coming from or how extensive it might be, it seemed most effective to use my units to neutralize the enemy attacks with fire to the greatest extent possible rather than move. While I lost some M113s in the chaos of the initial mortar barrage (historically, the enemy mortars were not effective), my gut feeling was backed by the fact that I tended to lose vehicles to enemy anti-tank teams only when I moved them. My early movements involved only pulling back to more defensible positions and only moved forward again to secure victory locations once the enemy attack was broken up.
I’m not sure if the U.S. command learned the lesson expounded in the scenario description, that armored units could be effective in Vietnam. However, I am pretty sure I did not learn the intended lesson. Tanks can be really good against infantry, especially if they can fight from well-supported positions on the defense and not be unduly exposed to anti-tank teams. Blind charges with armored vehicles against unseen and unknown enemies is generally not effective in Steel Panthers.
But about those tanks.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the scenario developer made a mistake when creating the order of battle for this one. At the Second Battle of Bàu Bàng, which would take place in March of 1967, Troop A (of a different Cavalry unit) had six M48 Patton tanks. From all the reading that I’ve done (though I’ve still got a source or two waiting to be read), Troop A of the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Regiment operated, on November 12th of 1965, only M113s, no tanks. The Viet Cong’s intelligence identified the armored personnel carriers (and some mortar carriers) as “tanks” (a mistake that continues to the here and now), but I don’t think any were actually there.
In my game, I found the M113s extremely vulnerable to hidden anti-tank positions and did, in fact, rely on the Pattons to dominate the battlefield. In real life, the initial M113 charge was a tremendous success, running off the Viet Cong attackers without the loss of a single vehicle.