Some of these movements required new construction. Others reoccupied old campsites abandoned temporarily, or prepared ahead of time as part of the movement rotation.
Why Were the Soil Tunnels of Cu Chi and Iron Triangle in Vietnam So Resilient
Even brief stops whether in the field, jungle or village required digging of combat trenches and foxholes. Campsites had several characteristics: . Also important was the requirement that the chosen location be within a single night's march of another camp. Special attention was paid to avenues of approach and withdrawal. VC and NVA battalions moved independently within their own sectors and along their own routes. A typical battalion might rotate between 20 and 25 campsites, all within a nights march of 3—4 other camps.
The standard camp was roughly circular and consisted of 2-lines of fortification, incorporating individual fighting positions, bunkers and trenches. Semi-permanent or permanent base camps contained more elaborate fortification Defensive tactics. Camps were not necessarily in remote areas. They were often situated near hamlets, or even within them — with troops taking shelter in individual houses if the village was fully dominated by the guerilla forces.
After digging in, telephone wire was run, units positioned and contact made with other surrounding military formations — especially militia and guerrilla fighters. Communist forces generally avoided villages with high canal banks, graveyards or trees because such obstacles hindered observation and gave advancing US and ARVN troops cover. Mines and booby traps were also planted along likely avenues of approach. Life in camp followed the military routines common to all armies, including early morning reveille, weapons training, building fortifications, duty details assigned individuals and groups, and daily strength and readiness reports required of officers.
Typical of all communist armies, a large bloc of time was devoted to "study sessions" where troops were indoctrinated and "criticism and self-criticism" administered. The exploits of outstanding fighters against the enemy were widely publicized and men were urged to emulate them. Food supplies were, like those of other armies, designed to keep the troops at a certain level of activity rather than be tasty. They also foraged widely including hunting. Lacking refrigeration, most food was prepared fresh. Rice was the staple. The ingenious Hoang Cam stove was used to prepare meals without flame or smoke being detected, incorporating a long exhaust trench that allowed smoke to gradually disperse into the jungle far away from the actual stove.
Recreation was provided by well organized troupes of actors and musicians when feasible, unit papers and radio broadcasts. As in all things, these were monitored by Party cadres to ensure the proper line was disseminated. Medical care was difficult and austere in wartime conditions, and medicines and facilities lacking, nevertheless the highly organized system provided a rudimentary level of care to injured fighters, with field hospitals sometimes located in tunnels, caves and underground bunkers.
Unless an enemy sweep, or patrol provoked an engagement, communist forces generally lay low until they were ready to initiate their own actions. If an engagement ensued, the typical approach in terms of defense was to delay opposing forces and withdraw as soon as possible, while inflicting maximum casualties before withdrawal. Massive US "search and destroy" sweeps for example, while of unmistakable value in area denial, dispersal of opponents etc. The biggest such operation, "Operation Junction City" in for example, involving some 22 US battalions and 4 ARVN counterparts, and supported by massive air and artillery firepower, only yielded an average of approximately 33 enemy dead per day, over its 2 months.
Such losses were manageable by an opponent that could put tens of thousands of staunch fighters in the field, and reinforce them with more every day. Even more telling, such massive sweeps failed to cripple their targets and deliver the big battles sought by the Americans. The option of initiating contact was still largely in the hands of Communist units, and their tactics lured powerful US forces away from populated areas, their key base until late in the war. A key part of the avoidance defensive pattern also involved the intensive use of fortifications and mines.
Both served to enable Front forces to escape for another day's fighting, while running up the enemy tab in blood and treasure. Generally a two line system of fortifications was used, about 50— meters apart. The lines were typically shaped like an L, U or V to enhance interlocking fields of fire. Individual L-shaped fighting positions were also dug, with bunkers at right angles covered with thick logs and about 2 feet of dirt. Shallow trenches connected many individual bunkers and positions into each belt of the 2-line system. The bunkers provided cover from inevitable US artillery and air attack, and the fighting positions allowed crossfire against infantry assaults.
The second line of defense was not visible from the first line of positions, and allowed the fighters to fall back, either to escape a heavy bombardment, to continue retreating or to furnish a rallying point for counterattack. In villages the VC and NVA followed the same 2-belt approach, placing defenses so they were integrated with village homes and structures. This took advantage of some US Rules of Engagement limiting or delaying the use of heavy weapons in inhabited areas.
Another benefit of embedding defenses among civilians was that atrocities could be charged if civilian structures were hit by US or ARVN fire. In more remote areas, defensive fortifications were more elaborate, sometimes incorporating a third belt of defenses with stronger bunkers and trench systems. US attacks against such tough positions sought to avoid US casualties by relying upon firepower. In some circumstances Front fortifications did not follow the layout scheme described above. Bunkers and fighting holes were scattered more widely to delay attackers, and create the psychological impression that they were surrounded on all sides.
Lookout posts were often positioned on key trails, routes and likely US helicopter landing zones. To enhance their mobility during a defensive battle, numerous air-raid shelters, bunkers and trenches were pre-built in advance around an area of operations. The holes were dug so deep that a man could stand inside. Excavation of dirt was from the rear, hiding telltale traces of the digging.
Only a direct hit by an artillery shell or bomb could kill troops inside such holes. Behind the line of foxholes, the Viet Cong utilized and improved an irrigation ditch, allowing them concealed movement, communication and transmission of supplies on foot or by sampan. Most of these fighting positions were invisible from the air. Booby traps and mines caused immense psychological pressure on US and ARVN troops and also inflicted numerous casualties. Booby traps ranged from the simple to the complex. Non-explosive traps included the well-known sharpened punji stake coated in excrement, and mounted on sapling triggers and placed in shallow, covered pits.
Stakes were deployed where infantry would walk or fling themselves to avoid attack such as roadside trenches, or behind logs. Other impalement devices included bamboo whips and triggered sapling spikes.
Digging the Cu Chi Tunnels
Bows with poisoned arrows were also used. Explosive booby traps were also employed, some command detonated by hidden observers. They ranged from single bullet cartridge traps , to grenades, to dud bombs and shells. Anti-vehicle traps ranged from mines to buried artillery rounds. Helicopter traps were often deployed in trees surrounding a potential landing zone, triggered by an observer, or the rotor's wash.
Discarded ration cans, for example, were loaded with grenades that had pins pulled partially — the other end connected to tripwire. The sides of the can held the pin in place until the tripwire was activated. Mines and booby traps were usually installed at night by trained personnel who had detailed knowledge of the terrain. Through ingenious techniques in mine warfare, the Viet Cong successfully substituted mines and booby traps for artillery. Instead of conventional minefields covered by fire, the enemy hindered or prevented the use of supply roads and inhibited off-the-road operations by planting explosive devices in indiscriminate patterns.
While he benefited directly by causing combat casualties, vehicle losses and delays in tactical operations, equally important was the psychological effect. Just the knowledge that a mine or booby trap could be placed anywhere slowed combat operations and forced allied troops to clear almost the entire Vietnam road net every day.
Vigorous counterattacks were also made, particularly against weaker ARVN formations. This initiated the "hug" method. Since their enemies would generally draw back upon contact and rely on supporting fires, front troops moved with them, "hanging on the belt. Actions against enemy forces were often initiated in the latter part of the day, with impending nightfall providing favorable conditions for withdrawal. Great efforts were made in recovering bodies, a psychological warfare measure that denied opponents the satisfaction of viewing enemy dead.
Invariably, VC and NVA units sought to withdraw if conditions were unfavorable, and camps and base areas were abandoned without sentiment if they became untenable. Rearguard detachments, mined routes, and diversionary attacks formed part of the retreat. The existence of cross-border sanctuaries in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam, where US ground troops could not follow greatly aided safe withdrawal of Communist formations. There was a withdrawal scheme for all operations whether defensive or offensive.
Escape and exit routes were pre-planned and concealed in advance, with later regrouping at a planned assembly point. Common techniques for withdrawal included the following: . While their American opponents enjoyed air superiority, PAVN forces continuously challenged them, deploying an impressive array of ordnance to liquidate enemies from the air.
The sophisticated missile defense system built with Soviet and Chinese assistance is well known, but PAVN made extensive use of anti-aircraft guns and even volume firing by ordinary soldiers. At the lowest level, one study noted that PAVN gunners were trained to use small arms against all types of aircraft, and special firing cells were established that could shoot up to rounds in 3 to 5 seconds at fast-moving jets. The volume of such firepower made life hazardous at the low levels for US planes, forcing them to move to higher altitudes, where the specialized anti-aircraft cannon took over.
Special "bait" areas, ringed with hidden anti-craft batteries were also established to lure US aircraft. Barrage firing of many guns, mixed at various levels was also sometimes effective. Sensitive areas, such as Hanoi, were the most heavily defended. Most US aircraft losses were caused by heavy automatic weapons and 14mm, 35mm 57mm and 85mm anti-aircraft guns. Flak batteries forced some US aircraft even higher, where they would be within reach of the deadly SA-2 missile batteries.
Positioning automatic weapons at treetop level also aided in the struggle against US helicopters. Air losses were to cause a dip in the morale of American pilots, some of whom felt they were being called to risk their lives against targets of relatively little value. Appeals to US Defense Secretary McNamara to remove restrictions on more lucrative targets were often drastically pared down or vetoed.
The inability of US airpower to take a decisive toll on communist forces is testimony not only to US failures, but to the tenacity of the ordinary PAVN soldier in direct combat with aerial enemies and in the massive effort spent in constructing sophisticated fortifications and tunnel systems.
US forces sometimes employed sophisticated airmobile tactics, using integrated helicopter landings, artillery support, and troop insertions to surround enemy contacts and close off escape routes. The outstanding mobility of the helicopter made this possible, and these versatile machines could be sent into action in several configurations troop transport, gunship, med-evac, heavy lift and supply. Helicopters allowed transport and deployment of infantry, artillery, medical, and supply elements to almost any location, presenting a formidable instrument that enhanced American and ARVN operations.
When combined with other aerial elements such as fixed wing air support this combat power was multiplied, and opened up a whole new dimension of operational maneuver. They required a vast and expensive "logistical tail" of maintenance, fuel, munitions and bases.
No nation except the US could afford such expense- fielding some 12, machines in Vietnam, almost half of which were shot down or lost due to accidents. Helicopters were also very vulnerable to heavy machine guns, light AA artillery, portable SAMs like the Soviet Strela, and even concentrated small arms fire.
According to some historians of airpower Van Creveld , costs were sometimes not commensurate with gains, and US airmobile operations might boil down to hugely expensive machines and their support systems chasing a handful of teenagers or second-string militiamen armed with cheap rifles. Usually conducted in daytime at the brigade level, planned strikes would allocate artillery and helicopter assets to battalions tasked with the fight.
Artillery elements positioned firebases early to create an umbrella of steel over the proposed zone of battle. Helicopter assets were assigned and divided into 3 segments- light scout helicopters for reconnaissance, heavily armed gunships for firepower, and larger "slicks", or troop transports for the infantry. The force commander, sometimes in a helicopter, was in constant communication with all elements via rUHF, FM and field radio as needed.
As the American operation commenced, light scout helicopters flew ahead of the strike force at low level to detect opponents or draw their fire. Above the scouts, the helicopter gunships would lurk, ready to pounce on enemy movement, fire or fortifications. Behind and below the gunships came the "slicks. People sniffing often required steady low altitude flying to improve reliability of results. If flushed out, the enemy was attacked by the gunships, and the transports began to land infantry to surround the target and seal off escape routes. Artillery firebases would then begin their fires to smash the opposition, bombard exit routes and provide cover for the American infantry.
US troops on such operations did not usually drive home attacks with direct assault, but sealed the enemy in a ring, while he was worked over by artillery and gunship strikes. Fixed-wing aircraft were on call if needed. This "surround and pound" approach substituted metal for men, and lowered US casualties, but in turn caused massive noncombatant civilian casualties.
Communist forces deployed several countermeasures against the American tactics. Avoidance and concealment was a primary method- sometimes made more difficult by the "sniffer" technology. But chemical detection was not always reliable- and could be thrown off by the use of animal decoys, urine bucket diversions, or was affected by wind, rain and other factors.
These locations could be a double-edged sword: they gave clear fields of fire against American infantry but the adjacent rice paddies sometimes created convenient enemy landing zones, and the water escape routes could become bottlenecks. Trees could also make effective defensive positions. Booby traps were laid on trails and rice paddy dikes, and in jungle growth in a random pattern, and often caused multiple casualties to American troops.
The primary tactic after being surrounded was to delay until nightfall, after which breakouts would begin. Large formations were broken down into smaller units to facilitate escape and a rendezvous was pre-planned in advance. Special units were deployed to probe the encirclement, looking for weak points, and decoy units were held ready for action to occupy American forces once the breakouts began.
Breakouts could be made with diversions while bodies of troops slipped away, or strength could be concentrated on a weak spot, providing enough local superiority to penetrate the American encirclement and disperse. Escaping units would link up later at designated marshaling points. As noted by some airpower historians, relatively small bodies of local fighters armed with inexpensive rifles, could divert and tie down expensive and massive allocations of men, material and time deployed by more sophisticated opponents. In some areas, US troops, often used as "bait" to draw out an enemy response, developed "firebase psychosis"- a reluctance to move too far away from the covering artillery of their firebases.
As a result, combat movement and operational flexibility was hampered, and more mobile communist forces attacked, broke contact, maneuvered around and eluded their opponents. Many firebases were also totally dependent on helicopters for construction, resupply and evacuation, and communist attacks against these fortresses could at times force their abandonment. Typically, such airmobile operations involved preparation of fire support bases, carved out of jungle terrain.
Suitable areas usually on high ground were selected and heavily bombarded with artillery and airstrikes, then US engineers and security troops landed to commence construction of fortifications, bunkers, artillery emplacements and helicopter landing pads. The ability of helicopters to transport all the needed men and heavy equipment to almost any location gave American arms tremendous power and flexibility. Under the artillery umbrella, Marine and army infantry deployed for combat. The versatility of helicopters enabled such forces to be resupplied and maneuvered to numerous points on the field of battle.
Firebases could also be "leapfrogged" or shifted in response to an advance or operational needs. If the objective was to cause attrition, NVA regulars would sometimes fight directly with their opponents using conventional tactics, particularly on the DMZ against the US Marines, and in remote border areas near Laos and Cambodia. Such attrition objectives were sometimes part of the North's overall strategy of drawing the Americans into remote areas, and away from key population clusters dominated or contested by the Viet Cong. PAVN forces also attempted with limited success to attack the quickly constructed firebases from which the lethal firepower issued.
Gaps between maneuvering US units were infiltrated and attacks mounted.
Download Viet Cong And Nva Tunnels And Fortifications Of The Vietnam War
Ambushes were also executed. Another tactic was fighting close to US units, so close that deadly American firepower from fixed bases was discouraged for fear of hitting their own troops.
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The fast-moving US operations, where there was no time for the usual months of communist initiative and rehearsed preparations, could catch PAVN off-guard, and casualties against US forces could be heavy. In Operation Dewey Canyon for example, US after-action reports claim some 1, NVA killed, for a loss of marines killed, and the capture of hundreds of tons of munitions, equipment and supplies.
The operation met heavy resistance, including intense antiaircraft fire. ARVN air insertions took them to the outskirts of Tchepone, but numerous helicopters were shot down or damaged. Some US helicopters were lost and an additional damaged. The communist base area at Tchepone was back in business within a week. The vital role of sanctuary areas which could be developed in depth into strong bases was again illustrated. American airmobile tactics caused substantial casualties to the VC and NVA in thousands of such confrontations, but the communist strategy of attritional, protracted war, aided by plentiful manpower, was designed to absorb these losses, while wearing down their opponents over time.
Successful air-mobile tactics also failed to address what happened after the mobile force and their helicopters departed. The population was often still left unsecured, subject once more to communist control, intimidation and infiltration. Cross-border sanctuary routes were still open, and the bulk of the networks of tunnels, base camps and fortification honeycombing a region usually survived. Once their opponents had left, communist forces eventually regrouped, replaced their losses, and returned.
Winning and holding specific blocks of territory was not as important as wearing down the enemy in accordance with Mao's dictum: "To win territory is no cause for joy, to lose territory is no cause for sorrow. This meant absorbing large numbers of casualties, but both manpower and time were plentiful. Planning for attacks was a careful, deliberate process, that could take many months.
Below is an outline of some considerations and actions involved. Attack criteria and approval: The political dimensions of the attack were carefully considered, such as the timing of an election in the enemy camp, or the appointment of certain government officials.
Planning involved a coordinated effort by military and logistics staff and the all-important political operatives, the party cadres who had the last word. Proposals for an operation were first sent up the chain of command. Depending on the scale of the planned operation, an idea to attack a certain village post might float up from Provincial, to Zone, to Interzone levels. Great stress was placed on a successful outcome that would be beneficial in terms of actual military results or propaganda.
Numerical superiority was deemed essential. Preliminary recon: If approved for further study, reconnaissance teams would case the area, analyzing political, logistics and military issues. Information gleaned from informers and sympathizers was joined to data from direct reconnaissance via patrols, infiltration or probing attacks. The analysis was comprehensive, and might involve size and composition of enemy forces, avenues of approach and withdrawal, civilian morale, hit lists of suspected traitors or troublesome dissenters who did not support the Revolution, available civilian labor to support logistics, detailed location of individual walls, ditches or fences and a host of other factors, both political and military.
Rehearsals for the attack: If the objective was deemed feasible along political and military lines, detailed planning for the actual operation began, including construction of sand tables, and string and stick mock-ups of the target. Main Force or regular units tasked with the assault were selected and rehearsed. Each phase of the attack was carefully reviewed and rehearsed, including actions before opening fire, actions during fire, and actions taken upon withdrawal.
Numerous postponements and changes might be undertaken until conditions and preparations were judged right to launch the assault. Logistics and security: Logistics formations might prepare coffins, pre-position medical or porter teams, and carefully tabulate the amount of ammunition needed for the operation. Guerrilla elements and laborers began to move supplies and material forward to support the impending battle. Security surrounding the operation was usually very tight with units only being informed at the last feasible moment. Echelons of attack: Depending on the complexity of the attack, numerous sub-divisions might be involved.
Local guerrillas might conduct certain preliminary tasks, such as diversionary attacks, or clearance or denial via mining, booby traps etc. Sappers might be tasked with opening the assault via infiltration and demolition of key objectives. A main force might swing into action once the sappers commenced their action.
A blocking force might be deployed to ambush relief troops rushing to the battle area. Attacks were invariably characterized by adherence to the principle of 'one slow, four quick' — a doctrine which prevailed in both attack and defense. In offensive operations the 'quick attack' was further broken down to incorporate 'three strongs' — strong fight, strong assault and strong pursuit.
Presented in sequence the doctrine can be summarized as follows:. Slow Plan — This involved a steady but low-key logistical build up in forward supply areas, being positioned ahead of the fighting forces to make a solid base for the operation. The degree of planning and preparation necessary to undertake a large operation could take as long as 6 months and often included numerous 'rehearsals'.
Situated on a mountain peak that was considered too tough to assault, the facilities were manned by a small force of USAF technicians on top, and about 1, Hmong and Thai irregulars deployed further down the slopes. NVA commandos however successfully climbed the mountain, killing or dispersing most of the guards and US airmen at the peak, while a larger follow-on echelon of NVA and Pathet Lao assaulted the rest of the mountain slopes below. The outgunned and outnumbered Hmong and Thai irregulars were defeated, and Communist forces held the site despite several days under counterattack by US aircraft.
A full after-action report by PAVN was translated in and along with other US reports, furnishes numerous details about offensive tactics. This operation did not involve the typical quick withdrawal however. In this case, the radar station helped guide US bombers — including the devastating Bs, and its capture was also a strong propaganda bonus demonstrating Communist strength in Laos to the local peoples.
The raid also illustrated another method of neutralizing US airpower- attack its support facilities and bases on the ground. Subsequent attempts by Royal Laotian forces to retake the area were only partially successful. The mountain peak was never recaptured.
One important feature of the ambush was that the target units should 'pile up' after being attacked, thus preventing them any easy means of withdrawal from the kill zone and hindering their use of heavy weapons and supporting fires. Terrain was usually selected which would facilitate this and slow down the enemy. The terrain around the ambush site which was not favorable to the ambushing force, or which offered some protection to the target, was heavily mined and booby trapped or pre-registered for mortars.
Other elements might also be included if the situation demanded, such as a sniper screen along a nearby avenue of approach to delay enemy reinforcement. When deploying into an ambush site, the NVA first occupied several observation posts, placed to detect the enemy as early as possible and to report on the formation it was using, its strength and firepower, as well as to provide early warning to the unit commander. Usually one main OP and several secondary OP's were established.
Runners and occasionally radios were used to communicate between the OP's and the main command post. The OP's were located so that they could observe enemy movement into the ambush and often they would remain in position throughout the ambush in order to report routes of reinforcement and withdrawal by the enemy as well as his maneuver options. Frequently the OP's were reinforced to squad size and served as flank security.
The command post was situated in a central location, often on terrain which afforded it a vantage point overlooking the ambush site. Reconnaissance elements observing a potential ambush target on the move generally stayed — meters away. Sometimes a "leapfrogging" recon technique was used. Surveillance units were echeloned one behind the other.
As the enemy drew close to the first, it fell back behind the last recon team, leaving an advance group in its place. This one in turn fell back as the enemy again closed the gap, and the cycle rotated. This method helped keep the enemy under continuous observation from a variety of vantage points, and allowed the recon groups to cover one another. The size and sophistication of an ambush varied from hasty meeting engagements, to full scale, carefully planned, regimental sized ambushes that included forces sufficient to encircle the enemy in the kill zone.
In instances where smaller units didn't have enough troops to stage a complete five-element ambush they would set up one of the preferred ambush types and avoided close assaulting the enemy. The preferred time for ambushes was just before dark. Enemy units were often deliberately delayed by the deployment of small patrols or snipers which harassed it. Roads and bridges to the rear of the enemy unit would also be sabotaged or mined to prevent withdrawal. This limited the enemy's use of air support and the deployment of reinforcements.
It often also resulted in the ambushed unit being pinned in place for the night and having to set up a defensive perimeter in a hostile area. All ambushes, in keeping with universal ambush doctrine, were intended to inflict maximum casualties on the enemy and to allow the ambushing force to withdraw before effective fire could be returned. Mine Ambush. This depended on the use of command-detonated mines which were triggered by hidden troops who held a detonating device connected to the demolitions by electrical wire.
Mine ambush kill zones might also include punji traps or other homemade traps, land mines and natural obstacles. However, the ambush was always triggered by electrically detonating a mine, when enemy troops moved within the mine's killing range. Bloody Nose Ambush. Used by small units against larger enemy forces as a means of harassment, delay and disruption. Minefields, mantraps and booby traps were placed along both sides of the trail and perpendicular to it.
As the enemy unit came under fire and attempted to maneuver right or left to close with the ambushers, the protective barriers would inflict casualties. Flank or Linear Ambush. This was one of the simplest to set up and operate and was most commonly used by the NVA. It was also easy to get into and away from quickly. The ambush position was laid parallel to the target area.
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Mines or other obstacles were placed on the other side of the ambush site. Upon command, fire was brought to bear on the kill zone from multiple, overlapping firing positions.
The linear ambush pumped bullets into the flank of a surprised enemy column. The 'L' Ambush. L-shaped ambushes included the most effective aspects of both the 'Bloody Nose' and Linear ambush. The short end, or base, of the 'L' was positioned so that at least one machine gun could fire straight down the kill zone, enfilading it. Parallel to the kill zone and tied into the 'L' was a second, flanking ambush. The 'L' shaped ambush could also provide its own flank security. The base of the 'L' might be placed along either flank of the ambush position, not to fire into the kill zone, but to ambush enemy units that were attempting to flank the main ambush position along obvious avenues of approach.
In some situations the enemy located a reserve unit in line with the vertical bar of the 'L' forming a 'T' ambush. After the ambush was sprung, the enemy maneuvered his reserves to block the enemy line of withdrawal. See details. Item location:. Jessup, Maryland, United States.
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About this product. ILT ; Mallinson, A. ILT ; Ray, L. It was common for extensive field works to be constructed to support assaults and sieges on US fire-support bases and remote camps. Their field works included defended villages, base camps, fortified complexes, hilltop defenses, trench systems, individual fighting positions, crew-served weapon positions, bunkers, caches, and extensive tunnel systems. Camouflage and deceptive measures, and the employment of obstacles and booby traps went hand-in-hand with such field works. This book examines these unique fortifications.
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