Sapper Combat Arm
The legendary Sapper Combat Arm of the First and Second Indochina Wars specialized in sabotage and clandestine military operations. The Sapper Branch was known as Sapper Command in the MACV order of battle listing. In the United States Army, a sapper is considered an elite combat engineer. Sapping is a term used in siege operations. Any trench excavated under defensive musket or artillery fire that was intended to advance a besieging army's position in relation to the works of an attacked fortification was referred to as a sap. The Viet Cong utilized sappers (demolition commandos) who would carry or wear satchel charges to blow up and destroy US and Republic of Vietnam equipment and fortifications.
Since the disasterous "Tet" offensive in 1968, the Communists gradually reverted to the small scale type of operations that characterized the war in Vietnam during the early 1960's. The heart of this new doctrine appeared to be the sapper attack. Some people have the impression that the sapper has a sort of suicide mission similar to the "Kami Kaze" pilots of World War II. This comparison while possibly true in the past, certainly does not describe the sapper in Vietnam; he wanted to accomplish his mission and stay alive. The sapper is a highly motivated, carefully selected, and thoroughly trained expert in the area of demolitions and penetration techniques. The sapper is trained to slip undetected through the outer defenses of fortified areas and to launch his attacks from inside the perimeter. His principal weapon is a patient, detailed reconnaissance. The sachel charge and the vital element of surprise follow once he knows all about your defenses.
The sapper realizes that both his success and survival depend on the rapid destruction of preselected targets before he is discovered. For this reason, the sapper attack rarely lasts any longer than a few minutes. In order to confuse those in the target area, the sapper attack may be covered by a simultaneous attack by fire or even a ground assault. A diversion of this sort will cause the defenders to man bunkers along the perimeter while leaving the inner area lightly defended.
Although casualties are generally caused by these attacks, target are normally command bunkers, artillery pieces, aircraft, and other facilities and materials. Once the attack has begun, the sapper will not stop to engage individual soldiers, but moves along pre-planned routes to his targets and then out through the wire as quickly as possible. The difference between a successful operation and a dead sapper was the extent of his reconnaissance, the bad habits of the defenders, the absence of tanglefoot wire, and his knowledge of the inner perimeter. For these reasons, every attack is planned in the greatest detail. Reconnaissance was essential for success. Without a thorough knowledge of the target area, the sapper will not attack.
During the reconnaissance phase, every detail must be noted. . . the location of mines, booby traps and fighting positions, the number of guards, their habits and exact locations, routes to the targets and routes of withdrawal. Sappers are too highly valued by the enemy to be committed without a high probability of success. The slightest change in the defensive posture of the target area may cause a postponement or cancellation of the intended attack.
Barbed wire, which is an important part of most defenses, is of little value unless used with properly laid out emplaced tanglefoot. Bear in mind that the sapper must be able to come and go through the wire, night after night without revealing his presence. A strip of "tanglefoot," six feet wide inside the double apron fence, no higher than four inches off the ground, pulled taut and securely staked down every 18 inches. will force the sapper to either go over the top of the wire or to cut the wire. Either course of action would be unsatisfactory to the sapper and force him to abandon his mission.
The best defense against the sapper is an alert soldier, sailor, airman or marine. Every effort must be made to deny the enemy information concerning our defenses. As in most situations, the little things make the difference. Don't smoke while standing guard. Avoid unnecessary movement and leave the radios back in the cantonment area. Avoid establishing any sort of discernible pattern or routine. Don't man the same positions night after night. Check the outer perimeter daily for possible signs of the enemy's presence. Inspect the mines and wire to be sure that they have not been tampered with. Relocate mines, booby traps and other devices frequently to confuse the potential attacker. These are just a few of the common sense things we can do to frustrate the sapper activity. Alertness is essential.
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