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The art of diversion and posture establishment – the unique feature in the North Central Highlands Offensive Operation in 1972

The North Central Highlands Offensive is the first operation conducted in the Central Highlands theatre of war with the participation of an army corps-level force to destroy the enemy’s robust lines of defence and alter the dynamic of the theatre of war, making vital contributing to victory of the Strategic General Offensive Campaign in 1972. There are invaluable lessons to be learned from this military operation, including the art of diversion and posture establishment.

Having thoroughly grasped situations in the southern theatre of war, the Politburo decided to launch the Strategic Offensive Campaign in the Southeast region, Tri Thien, and Central Highlands in August 1971. Our regular force took initiative in mounting three offensives in selected theatres of war in conjunction with offensives and uprisings in rural areas to defeat the enemy’s stabilisation operations. Besides, we closely combined struggle on all three fronts, including politics, military, and diplomacy, to force the U.S. to withdraw their troops and accept our conditions during Paris peace talks. Having been well aware of the situations and thoroughly assessed the enemy’s intentions, we proactively carried out acts of deception in the theatre to provide further evidence for their predictions. To realise this intention, a deception plan was worked out by the High Command and implemented by the Theatre Command right from posture establishment. The High Command’s deceptive intention mostly aimed to deceive the enemy into concentrating their strength in our strategic offensive directions on three key theatres of war. This would allow us to concentrate our forces and launch surprise strategic offensives against the enemy’s regular force in Tri Thien, Southeast region, and Central Highlands. Accordingly, we mounted counterattacks during rainy season in the 9th Military Region theatre to defeat the enemy’s plan to seize U Minh. In the 5th Military Region theatre, we conducted the Spring – Summer Offensive in 1971, restored people’s warfare in the Central Highlands, and sent many task forces from Tri Thien to the plain to kill the fiends, destroy the enemy military posts, and support the masses in struggle. These activities aimed to annihilate the enemy and expand the liberated areas while making it impossible for the enemy to correctly predict our strategic intentions, most notably our main directions of attack and targets in 1972.

Tanks in the operation (A file photo)

Having carefully evaluated situations in the threatres, on March 11, 1972, we decided to change Tri Thien from an important direction of coordination into the major direction of strategic offensive and the Southeast region and North Central Highlands into important directions of coordination, resulting in a strategic offensive throughout the South. The High Command continued to command our forces in strategic directions and all theatres of war in the South to enhance deception operations, making it impossible for the enemy to judge our intention to launch the Strategic Offensive in 1972. This was a battle of wits between us and the enemy, a unique, creative, flexible feature of Viet Nam’s military art. Synchronous, active, and effective coordination of deception operations drove the enemy to miscalculations. They thought that we would mount offensive operations in the Central Highlands, stabilisation operations in the plain, or attacks on Lunar New Year in 1972. When we did not carry out any major operations, both the U.S. and their puppets came to the same conclusion that we were unable to launch major offensives against their outer lines of defence and in densely populated cities. This led them to a serious mistake in early 1972 when they continued to augment their strength in the town of Kon Tum. The 2nd Parachute Brigade of the strategic reserve was ordered to move from Sai Gon to establish a new line of defence at the 1,049 and 1,015 heights to the west of the River Po Co. In the meantime, main force of the enemy’s 2nd Military Region in North Central Highlands formed three defence complexes, namely Dak To – Tan Canh, the town of Kon Tum, and the town of Pleiku. Among these three defence complexes, Dak To – Tan Canh was not only the command centre for the defence system in the north of Kon Tum province, but also the point of departure for the enemy to conduct raids against our revolutionary bases and strategic transport routes in the border triangle area. This place was home to the headquarters of the 22nd Division, 42nd Regiment, American advisors, and 2nd Military Region Command of the puppet military of South Viet Nam. There used to be from 12 to 14 infantry battalions, one armour regiment, and three artillery battalions. The town of Tan Canh, situated at the intersection of the 14th and 18th motorways and home to approximately 5,000 people, was protected by two companies of police and civil guard.

Based on tasks assigned by the Politburo and Central Military Commission (CMC), the Operation Command devised a two-phase offensive plan to annihilate enemy forces in the Central Highlands, including diversion and posture establishment and attack. The attack phase itself was broken into two phases: (1) attack against the town of Tan Canh and the base of the 22nd Division; (2) liberation of the town of Kon Tum and Pleiku if situation allowed. According to the operational plan, our forces did not immediately attack the enemy’s lines of defence but lured and engaged them in areas west of River Po Co and north of Vo Dinh, creating a shift in the military balance in our favour. After that, our forces would attack the enemy’s defensive zones from Dak To – Tan Canh to the town of Kon Tum. To maintain secrecy about our activities to prepare the way and deploy forces and weapon systems to Dak To – Tan Canh, the Operation Command used the 320th Division to impose direct pressure on the enemy forces in Kon Tum and some independent regiments to block traffic on the 14th motorway and separate the town of Kon Tum from other areas. These activities further strengthened the enemy’s belief that the town of Kon Tum would be the forthcoming target of our main force, thus resulting in their swift reinforcement for Kon Tum. Moreover, they deployed the Parachute Division of the strategic reserve to the heights of 1,049 and 1,015 west of River Po Co. Two battalions of this Division suffered heavy losses from our attacks.

In early March 1972, when the time for the Strategic Offensive in southern theatre of war in general and Central Highlands theatre of war in particular was coming, the military and people of the Central Highlands actively completed all preparations for the operation. To prevent our offensives, the 2nd Military Region Command of the puppet military of South Viet Nam both dispatched commandos and scouts and carried out bombing raids on our strategic, operational transport routes. Therefore, since March 22, 1972, apart from instructing units in all directions to promptly complete all preparations for the offensive, the Operation Command ordered the 28th and 95th Regiments and some independent regiments to act in concert with local soldiers, militia, and guerrillas to raid and block traffic on the 14th motorway to the North and South of Kon Tum town in order to besiege and separate the enemy forces. Our commandos and mortarmen secretly penetrated the enemy lines of defence to raid their weapons emplacements and logistics support areas. The 2nd Division, 5th Military Region used a battalion to conduct tactical deception in Dak To to create favourable conditions for the 1st Regiment of 2nd Division and the 24th Regiment to prepare the theatre of war for attacking headquarters of the enemy’s 22nd Division and 42nd Regiment in the defence complex of Dak To – Tan Canh. Our military engineer units were ordered to build temporary roads leading to positions about five or six kilometres from enemy, facilitating movement of tanks, artillery and armoured vehicles in the flanking maneuver.

Half month after implementing phase one of the operation, situations in the North Central Highlands showed positive developments in our favour. Most of enemy’s lines of defence to the west of River Po Co were smashed by the 320th Division, paving the way for attacking major targets. The 2nd Division and its attached units formed a robust offensive posture in the east. While the enemy was overwhelmed with response to us in the direction of Kon Tum, on April 24, 1972, our infantrymen and tanks suddenly attacked Dak To – Tan Canh line of defence, which inflicted heavy losses on the 22nd Division, 4th Armour Regiment, and two artillery battalions of the puppet military of South Viet Nam and facilitated subsequent phase of the operation to attack the town of Kon Tum. Nevertheless, due to our slow movement of forces, failure to exploit the window of opportunity, and lack of synergy among units in directions of attack, the enemy had time to consolidate units, engage and carry out continuous bombing raids on our combat formation. Our next waves of attack were unsuccessful, thus the Operation Command decided to put an end to the operation.

The North Central Highlands Operation in 1972 had some limitations, but we basically realised our strategic operational intentions, including altering the dynamic of the Central Highlands theatre of war, creating a corridor connecting Tri Thien and the Central Highlands with the Southeast region, and contributing to developing the position and strength of the revolutionary war in the South in the Strategic Offensive in 1972. The key points were that we camouflaged well, successfully conducted deception and built roads for tanks, artillery, and armoured vehicles, maintained close coordination among arms, and sited headquarters of the 2nd Division close to the enemy battlefield. Although the enemy knew about our construction of roads and movement of troops, they thought we could not complete the construction. This was a huge success in deception and posture establishment of the Operation Command. Besides its own acts of deception, the operation was also supported by the higher echelon’s deception plans in other directions and theatres. These activities were key to success of the opening battle of the operation, especially in the context of the enemy’s robust defence, enormous firepower, wide area of reconnaissance, high mobility, and proactive defence. Diversion and posture establishment did not only contribute to accomplishment of preparations, but more importantly created the most favourable conditions for us to concentrate and bring into full play our strength and firepower.

There are lessons to be learned from the North Central Highlands Operation in 1972, most notably the art of diversion and posture establishment. This is invaluable experience that needs to be studied and applied in the war to safeguard the Homeland.

Sr. Col., Assoc Proff, Doctor Hoang Xuan Nhien and Lt. Col. Tran Huu Trung 

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