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S 5 Historical Notes - TET 1968


In Vietnam, the Tet celebrations usher in the lunar New Year and are the most important festive celebrations of the year. Tet began on 30 Jan in 1968 and was to be the start of week-long holidays with families reuniting and South Vietnamese soldiers granted leave to return home. The Viet Cong announced a 7 day ceasefire to commence from 27 Jan 68 but the South Vietnamese Government, concerned that a long truce would only give the enemy freedom of movement, restricted the ceasefire to thirty-six hours from 6pm on 29 Jan. Tet leave for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was limited, with a minimum strength of 50 per cent of troops in all units on full alert. The ceasefire was cancelled entirely in Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces because of the strong military pressure from North Vietnamese forces surrounding the US Marine base at Khe Sanh.

Intelligence reports expected a major enemy offensive in early 1968. The main enemy units were identified and a date early in Feb was predicted. There was some warning that attacks would be launched against the cities and towns of Vietnam, but the magnitude and ferocity of the attacks that eventually took place was not anticipated. Tet-1968 swept the length of South Vietnam in a three day cataclysm that saw the national capital, 5 of 6 autonomous cities, 36 of 44 provincial capitals and 64 of 242 district capitals attacked. The brunt of the assault was borne by half strength ARVN units assigned to defensive duties near population areas. The very shock of such a massive attack produced incredulity before a rational response. However, nobody in Saigon or Washington anticipated even remotely the psychological impact the offensive would have in the United States. The sheer audacity of the offensive destroyed the credibility of the American military among it own people and strengthened the anti-war movement in the United States.

The main provincial towns in Phuoc Tuy came under heavy attack on 31 Jan. Ba Ria, the capital of Phuoc Tuy, was occupied by a reinforced Viet Cong battalion (D445 Provincial Battalion which had seen heavy contact with the 1st Australian Task Force (1ATF) since Aug 66). Early the next day, A Company, 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR), and 3 Troop, A Squadron 3rd Cavalry reached Ba Ria to assist the hard pressed ARVN forces in clearing the Viet Cong from the province capital. Savage fighting immediately broke out and forty Viet Cong were killed in the following 24 hours. Fire fights were sharp and intense and ranged from street to street among the tightly packed buildings of the town. The enemy fought tenaciously from well-prepared positions with rockets, small-arms and machine gun fire. Armoured personnel carriers (APCs) provided heavy and accurate machine gun fire and also assisted in the evacuation of Australian and Allied wounded. A Sioux helicopter pilot from 161 Independent Reconnaissance Flight landed his helicopter three times under enemy fire in the town square to evacuate the more serious casualties. The Viet Cong attack on Ba Ria was repelled by the afternoon of 2 Feb.

3RAR supported the 2/52 ARVN Ranger Battalion from 3 to 6 Feb to clear Long Dien, 5km east of Ba Ria. The Australian battalion saw heavy fighting on 4 Feb in clearing the Viet Cong from a number of entrenched positions during which the battalion, which had arrived in Vietnam the previous Dec, suffered its first fatality. From 5 to 9 Feb, 3RAR twice cordoned off Hoa Long, situated just south of Nui Dat and also assisted in securing the eastern approaches to Ba Ria. On 8 Feb at Long Dien, a platoon of B Coy 3RAR was engaged with heavy fire from entrenched positions. The platoon went to ground to return fire and was immediately assaulted by the Viet Cong. The attack was thrown back by rifle and machine gun fire with 9 enemy killed and 6 more who were seen to fall. Three Australians were killed in action.

The Tet-1968 fighting cut the road from Vung Tau to Nui Dat in the first week of Feb. Supplies that normally were brought by road convoy were instead lifted in by Caribou aircraft from No 35 Squadron, RAAF. A total of 482,907 lbs of freight were flown into Nui Dat in three successive days. As in all Tet-1968 attacks, the timing of the offensive in Phuoc Tuy province coincided with the holiday leave of the bulk of ARVN troops and National Police. The Viet Cong targets in Tet-1968 were the cities and towns of South Vietnam and not the military bases which were well defended by the full strength US, Australian and Korean units on full alert. While Australian troops rushed to support ARVN units in Phuoc Tuy, in other provinces US and allied troops also offered assistance to the ARVN who bore the brunt of the fight. It was not surprising that the Viet Cong were able to infiltrate men, equipment and supplies into position for the attack. Attacking under the cover of the Tet holidays, against population centres when ARVN units were at half strength, was an ideal opportunity. What was surprising was that the Viet Cong, which had for so long been elusive and extremely reluctant to take casualties, put themselves into a situation where half the attacking force was eliminated. Tet-1968 was over within days in Phuoc Tuy and most other provinces. However, it took weeks to be contained in Saigon, Hue and Khe Sanh.

The Saigon area in 1968 was defended by the South Vietnam 5th Ranger Group and seven regional, service and police battalions. However, there were also two elite airborne battalions on hand when Tet-1968 erupted. The Viet Cong's simultaneous rocket, mortar and ground attacks against many installations and buildings throughout the national capital achieved complete tactical surprise. The most important mission - seizing the United States Embassy - was given to 19 members of the C10 VC City Sapper Battalion which was composed of Saigon inhabitants. Viet Cong sappers breached the Embassy wall with satchel charges but the US Marine guard prevented them taking the main Chancery building. US reinforcements landed on the Chancery roof by helicopters and by 9am had killed the sappers attacking the Embassy. Other targets such as the ARVN General Staff compound were also quickly cleared but fighting was to continue for weeks around the Phu Tho racetrack, involving heavy street to street fighting. The Viet Cong renewed its assault on 17-18 Feb when 57 rocket shellings and ten firefights erupted inside Saigon and Cholon. The final Saigon battle of Tet-1968 was a fierce battle between ARVN rangers and main force Viet Cong in Cholon on 7 Mar.

Australian troops were not involved in the Tet-1968 battles in Saigon. However 1ATF which, since its formation in May 66, had operated exclusively in Phuoc Tuy province, commenced its first operation outside the province a week prior to Tet-1968. Operation Coburg began on 24 Jan and lasted until 1 Mar. Two battalions, 2RAR and 7RAR were deployed in the area where 1RAR had operated in 1965/66, east of the major US logistical complex in the Long Binh/Bien Hoa area to protect the base from rockets and mortars. 7RAR was relieved on 10 Feb by 3RAR which established Fire Support Base (FSB) Andersen close to well known Viet Cong lines of communications. Late in Feb, FSB Andersen was attacked on three occasions - the first attacks by ground assault on an Australian FSB. They were not to be the last.

The third largest city in South Vietnam, the ancient walled capital of Hue was infiltrated and seized by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese just after the Tet New Year midnight rites. By daybreak, the Viet Cong flag was flying from the masthead of the Imperial Palace where it would fly for twenty-five days until pulled down by ARVN troops. The struggle for Hue lasted nearly five weeks with two NVA regiments and two Viet Cong sapper battalions pitted against eight US and 13 South Vietnamese infantry battalions in one of the most savage and prolonged battles of the Vietnam War. The NVA/Viet Cong forces were outnumbered by vastly superior forces, but continued to hold onto the city because of the propaganda value of seizing and holding, even temporarily, the cultural and religious centre of South Vietnam. The hard and bitter fighting to defeat the NVA/Viet Cong forces was mainly done by the ARVN soldiers of 1st Corps who, after Tet-1968, attained a new found esprit de corps. There were a number of Australian advisers from the Australian Army Training Team and the ARVN units that retook Hue. Their story is recounted in The Team by Ian McNeill. In retaking the city of Hue which had been previously unscarred by the war, extensive damage occurred. Some 30,000 artillery rounds were fired during the battle and whole blocks of the city were reduced to rubble. Thousands of citizens became refugees but this was not the only price paid by the people of Hue. The NVA, with lists provided by the Viet Cong, undertook a campaign of extermination of school teachers, government officials, and those who refused to rise up against the government. Bodies later exhumed revealed that nearly 5000 were executed. In the battle to regain Hue, RAAF Canberra bombers from No 2 Squadron flew missions in support of troops within the city itself and the surrounding countryside.

From 30 Jan 68 until the end of Apr 68, RAAF Canberra bombers flew many strikes in support of the besieged US Marine combat base at Khe Sanh.

The siege of Khe Sanh began on 19 Jan 68 when a US Marine platoon was ambushed just west of the base. Two reinforced NVA divisions, the 304th and 325C commenced an extended siege of the base which lasted for 77 days. They constructed entrenched approach works, with snipers patiently waiting for careless targets while constantly shelling the marines who struggled to keep the base supplied. The weather and hostile fire dictated 679 supply drops in addition to the 455 aircraft that landed during the siege. With the easing of the monsoon, the US 1st Cavalry Division re-established the land route to Khe Sanh in early Apr.

In May 68, a further offensive was launched against Saigon and a dozen other cities were attacked with rockets and mortars in what became known as Mini-Tet. On 6 May attacks were launched against Tan Son Nhut air base and on 7 May fighting erupted again in Cholon. During this fighting three Australian and one British pressmen were killed when their jeep drove into a Viet Cong ambush. Australian troops were again moved out of Phuoc Tuy to help block the routes taken by the Viet Cong in and out of Saigon. On 13 May and 16 May, 1RAR and the 12th Field Regiment were severely tested at FSB Coral when the base was assaulted by what was assumed to be a North Vietnamese regiment. On 26 and 28 May 3RAR, with the help of Centurion tanks, repulsed two further attacks on FSB Balmoral. In a little over two weeks, lATF lost 26 killed and 110 wounded.

In retrospect, General Westmoreland the US Commander in Vietnam in 1968, said he and officials in Washington should have tried more to alert the American public to the coming of a major enemy attack. In 1976, he wrote in his autobiography, A Soldier Reports: "No one to my knowledge foresaw that, in terms of public opinion, press and television would transform what was undeniably a catastrophic military defeat for the enemy into a presumed debacle for Americans and South Vietnamese, an attitude that still lingers in the minds of many."



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