John Spencer and Jayson Geroux | 11.04.21
The Battle of Hue took place in the former Republic of South Vietnam and occurred from January 31 to March 2, 1968. Hue was bisected by the Perfume River (Hương, in Vietnamese), which flowed from southwest to northeast out to the South China Sea. On the immediate northwest riverbank of the river was Old Hue, which consisted of the three-square-mile, high-walled, diamond-shaped “Citadel” that included the Imperial Palace. New Hue was located on the southeast bank of the river. Hue was a city of cultural influence, religious importance, and architectural significance and as a result was deeply revered by generations of the Vietnamese people. The city had a population of 140,000 before the battle.
On one side of the battle were the North Vietnamese Army’s (NVA) 4th, 5th, and 6th Regiments and approximately six battalions of South Vietnamese Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas, creating a total force of eight thousand fighters. On the other side were United States Marines from Task Force X-Ray—the 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment (1/1), and the 1st and 2nd Battalions and the 3rd Battalion’s L Company from 5th Marines (1/5, 2/5 and L/3/5); the US Army 1st Cavalry Division’s 3rd Brigade, with additional battalions from other brigades; the two hundred American and Australian advisors at the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) compound within New Hue; the 1st Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) within the Citadel, numbering only one thousand soldiers as a majority were on leave; and the 1st, 4th, and 5th Battalions of “Battle Group Alpha,” South Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC). The combined task force consisted of approximately twelve battalions in total.
The Battle of Hue was launched during the Vietnamese Tet holiday celebrating the beginning of a lunar new year as well the coming of spring. After months of reconnaissance, pre-positioning of supplies, and clandestine infiltration of fighters in civilian clothes for what would become known as the Tet Offensive—a surprise attack on multiple cities and posts in South Vietnam in general and Hue in particular—the NVA/VC assault began on January 31, 1968. Within hours the 4th NVA Regiment had taken New Hue, the 6th Regiment had taken the Citadel, and the 5th Regiment was firmly entrenched in several villages northwest of the city. The enemy forces then transitioned to the defense, which included strengthening their interior positions and securing their resupply lines from the villages north of the city. The VC began a systematic and thorough program of murdering South Vietnamese government officials, their families and friends, and anybody in the city who had the slightest relationship with or had supported South Vietnam’s government or the United States. The Americans and South Vietnamese were caught off guard because of the holiday and successful enemy deception campaign and were quite overwhelmed due to the overall simultaneous attacks of the Tet offensive. As a result, it took them several days to fully understand the situation in Hue. With little information, military leaders grossly under-estimated enemy numbers and dispatched small units in piecemeal fashion to meet the overall threat until they could cobble together enough forces to counterattack. The American commander in Vietnam, General William Westmoreland, reported to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Earle Wheeler on January 31 that the city was only occupied by three NVA companies and that American forces would soon have them cleared out.
The battle occurred in three distinct areas, which were related to but generally independent of each other due to the urban geography of Hue itself. Each fight occurred concurrently in different areas of the city: US Marines against the NVAs 4th Regiment in New Hue; the ARVN, VNMC, and US Marines against the NVAs 6th Regiment in Old Hue’s Citadel; and the US Army against the NVAs 5th Regiment northwest of Hue. Strict rules of engagement were put into place by South Vietnamese and American leaders to limit collateral damage to the city, in particular the Citadel and its Imperial Palace.
In New Hue, a single company of US Marines with four attached M-48 tanks from 1/1 Marines was initially dispatched from Phu Bai to reinforce the small units fighting in the city and to relieve the besieged MACV compound that had been under heavy attack since the beginning of the battle. The Marines were immediately ambushed as they attempted to enter the city and were unable to reach the MACV compound. Additional forces from 1/1 and a company from 2/5 Marines were directed to support 1/1; they too were ambushed en route but eventually made it to the compound. With senior leaders still not fully understanding the full weight of the enemy situation in Hue the Marines were told to continue attacking enemy positions but their attempts to cross bridges across the Perfume River and to reach besieged forces failed due to the enemy’s overwhelming numbers. When the enemy’s strength was finally realized additional companies from 2/5 were dispatched to support 1/1’s attack from east to west within New Hue and eventually 1st Marines took over the fight on February 1. Famously, when 2/5’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ernest (Ernie) Cheatham, was ordered into Hue he immediately did three things: he gave orders to his companies directing those that would follow him to Hue and those that would remain fighting at Phu Bai; he found and reviewed two military urban warfare manuals (Combat in Built-Up Areas and An Assault on a Fortified Position); and, based on his doctrine review, he had his battalion scrounge up weapons and equipment that would assist them in urban combat, a task that took them well into the next day. Cheatham’s subordinates were able to collect CS riot-control gas (a type of tear gas), gas masks, recoilless rifles, mortars, and antitank rocket launchers. Both 1/1 and 2/5 fought from January 31 to February 11 to clear New Hue’s six city blocks and destroyed the NVA’s 4th Regiment, learning urban warfare tactics, techniques, and procedures the hard way, on the job. For instance, one lesson learned while fighting was that the soldiers needed to aim their 3.5-inch antitank rockets below or at the base of enemy windows instead of directly at the window, the latter of which caused rockets to just travel through the rooms and strike walls on the other side, with the blast continuing in the same direction and away from dismounted enemy who were standing and firing out the windows.
Inside Old Hue’s Citadel the 1st ARVN Division headquarters was under heavy attack from the beginning of the battle. The division’s commander, Brigadier General Ngo Quang Truong, had only a few headquarters and staff soldiers, a dispersed 240-man all-volunteer Hac Bao (“Black Panther”) reaction force, his thirty-six-man reconnaissance company, and a handful of support units. They all attempted to defend their location in the northeast corner of Old Hue. Over the next several days Brig. Gen. Truong requested and had multiple ARVN units that included Vietnamese airborne troops sent to the city by river, air, and land but as they pushed out into the Citadel they made agonizingly slow progress against the enemy entrenched in Old Hue. When the 1st ARVN Division and the 6th NVA Regiment were more-or-less stalemated, South Vietnamese Marines replaced the ARVN airborne units and the USMC’s 1/5 was also tasked to support the fight within the Citadel. From February 11 to February 25, ARVN, VNMC, and 1/5 forces—which was eventually reinforced by L/3/5—made their way south and west from the northeastern sectors of Old Hue. They were significantly challenged by the narrow streets, multiple fortified buildings, and restrictive rules of engagement to limit collateral damage within the historic areas of Old Hue. The thick walls and towers of Old Hue caused the attackers to rely heavily on a combination of fires from American rockets, mortars, M-48 tanks that included concrete-piercing fused shells, and especially the smaller M-50 Ontos—armored, antitank tracked vehicles mounted with six 106-millimeter recoilless rifles that were able to maneuver more quickly and into more narrow spaces than the tanks due to their smaller chassis. The Americans struggled to develop tactics on the move to deal with the enemy within buildings that seemed impervious to massive amounts of direct and indirect fires, but found that adding tear gas to the combined arms approach was very effective. When members of F/2/5 faced enemy forces inside the treasury building’s thick concrete walls they decided to add tear gas grenades into their assault. They fired dozens of gas grenades into the structure and then—wearing gas masks and under the cover of small arms, rocket, mortar, and tank fire—stormed and cleared the building within hours. The NVA soldiers did not have gas masks and withdrew from their positions, allowing the Marines to mop up the coughing, hacking stragglers on the different floors. After several days, the American and South Vietnamese forces reached the border walls at the end of their southern and western advances, after which they cleared any pockets of remaining resistance in the Citadel and Imperial Palace. Old Hue was considered fully cleared on February 25.
While simultaneous fights were occurring in New Hue and Old Hue there was a struggle to control the Perfume River and use of the bridges across the Phu Cam Canal; there were advantages for whichever side controlled these waterways. As Marine and Army convoys rushed to support besieged forces, especially in Old Hue, they attempted to cross the waterways. The US Navy had a docking ramp on the river with riverine patrol boats present but any initial crossing attempts were met with fierce direct fire attack from the opposite bank as NVA forces clearly recognized the importance of the waterway to bringing reinforcements across it. NVA engineers also explosively destroyed the railway bridge and the road bridge that crossed the Perfume River on the west and east sides of the city, respectively, and the bridges across the Phu Cam Canal. While American forces were able to use massive fires and tear gas to enable crossings and ARVN Ranger battalions later stealthily crossed at different sites using their watercraft, it took deliberate operations to cross what quickly became major danger areas.
Northwest of Hue the US Army’s 3rd Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division initially dispatched only one battalion, 2/12 Cavalry, to deal with the NVA’s 5th Regiment in the outer villages. The Americans were heavily outnumbered, forced to remain stationary, and at times required to remain on the defensive for several days until more units were brought in to assist. The result had the NVA’s 5th Regiment keeping routes open and clear for reinforcements and resupply runs into the Citadel. By February 11, the NVA’s 4th Regiment was largely ineffective in New Hue, so the focus became the destruction of the NVA’s 6th Regiment within the Citadel and 5th Regiment northwest of the city. That focus came with additional units, especially after General Creighton Abrams was emplaced as the overall commander of the battle on February 15 and expressed his dissatisfaction with the lack of progress northwest of the city. The next day, he directed more reinforcements to be added to the fight. The 3rd Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division was finally given three additional battalions—1/7 Cavalry and 5/7 Cavalry from the 1st Cavalry Division and the 2/501st from the 101st Airborne Division—and from February 16 to February 23 begin removing the NVA’s 5th Regiment from the area. This included challenging fighting in the villages and large forests northwest of the city due to the weeks of enemy defensive preparations that had been secretly constructed. On February 23, the brigade’s efforts finally rendered the 5th Regiment largely combat ineffective and stopped the flow of enemy soldiers and supplies going into the city. The US Army units then began advancing toward the Citadel to clear out the final pockets that were close to Old Hue’s city walls, which took until February 25. Small pockets of resistance in and around Hue were continually found for the next several days. The operation was finally called to an end on March 2, 1968.
Like most urban operations the casualty numbers on all sides were high. The US Marines had 142 killed and close to eleven hundred wounded; the ARVN had 333 killed, 1,773 wounded and thirty missing; Battle Group Alpha’s South Vietnamese Marines had eighty-eight killed, 350 wounded and one missing; the 1st Cavalry Division had sixty-eight killed and 453 wounded. Estimated numbers of NVA and VC dead ranged anywhere from twenty-five hundred to five thousand within the city, and an estimated three thousand killed outside of the city. With a majority of the city destroyed, Hue’s civilian population truly suffered. Roughly 116,000 civilians were made homeless, some fifty-eight hundred were reported killed or missing and the bodies of allegedly over three thousand were found in shallow graves with the evidence demonstrating that they had been blatantly murdered—a result of the Viet Cong assassination program that had begun shortly after Communist forces had seized the city.
Regarding strategic lessons that can be learned from this battle the first is that cities are strategic objectives. Hue was one of over one hundred cities and outposts attacked by the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive. War is a contest of wills; cities are not only the economic engines of nations and political centers of gravity, but also where the people and societies that influence war live. The North Vietnamese were not attempting to defeat the South Vietnamese or Americans militarily with the Tet Offensive; they wanted to attack the will of the South Vietnamese and American populations to continue the conflict by demonstrating that the war was a futile effort. Arguably, the Tet Offensive was a major tactical loss but a strategic win for the North Vietnamese. When influential and popular American news anchor Walter Cronkite returned from visiting Vietnam after the Tet Offensive, a visit that included Hue on its itinerary, his television report on the horrors of city fighting and his opinion that the war would end in stalemate even led US President Johnson to state, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
A second strategic lesson is that political and military leaders must be prepared and ready for urban warfare. The Battle of Hue demonstrates that despite political and military aversions to fighting in cities, it often becomes completely unavoidable. Lack of strategic preparation for fighting in cities usually starts with blanket and strict limitations on the use of military force through rules of engagement, which was the case at the beginning of this battle. Such strategic direction had negative operational and tactical ripple effects for American forces in particular because they could not use their overwhelming firepower to destroy enemy positions once located. Americans lives were lost as a result. Once it was determined that it would take heavy weapons to destroy the enemy burrowed into the urban terrain and to save South Vietnamese and American lives, senior politicians relented and had the restrictions lifted. However, that was not until February 4in New Hue and February 13 inside the Citadel. Senior political and military leaders must come to realize, as the Americans did in Hue, that there are no easy solutions to limiting the costs of urban combat, especially in the lives of the soldiers conducting the mission. Well-trained, properly equipped, and prepared forces that can seize enemy-held cities, along with political understanding and plans for such operations, are some of the best methods of decreasing collateral damage in urban warfare.
At the operational level, the immediate lesson learned from Hue is the need to isolate a major urban objective to prevent the enemy from reinforcing and resupplying its forces and thus prolonging the fight. This battle clearly demonstrated that leaders must understand that the operations outside of an urban area will have effects on the fighting within it. As long as the NVA’s 5th Regiment was allowed to keep the logistical lines of communication to Hue open, the North Vietnamese forces continued reinforcing and resupplying their comrades within the city, which prolonged the fight and created more friendly casualties. Although it is a fantastic feat of arms that the US Army used only four battalions to eventually destroy a number of NVA battalions northwest of the city, one can argue that taking over two weeks for the senior American military leadership to come to the realization of the critical and connected fight was too long. Once the NVA’s 5th Regiment was destroyed or dislodged from the villages north of the city, the NVA and VC inside Hue knew they would eventually be defeated and began withdrawing.
A second operational lesson learned was the demonstration that urban warfare requires ground, sea, and air forces all working together under a unified command. While historical resources have placed the Marines and, in some accounts, Army units front and center in the Battle of Hue, the battle included the US Navy, Air Force, Army, and Marines working together in a joint campaign. Although in retrospect the US Navy can be criticized for not protecting the bridges across the Phu Cam Canal and the Perfume River from North Vietnamese sappers. Naval assets or other services equipped and trained for riverine operations must be used to patrol waterways to prevent enemy destruction of critical crossing points, prevent enemy resupply, and support friendly resupply through those waterways. The US Navy did come forward to ferry troops, vehicles, supplies, and equipment across the water when needed, with most of those trips being under fire from the Citadel’s walls. Unfortunately for American air assets, low cloud cover and poor visibility throughout most of the battle added significant challenges. However, during rare breaks in the weather, helicopters transported American and South Vietnamese troops into the Citadel and fighter jets dropped ordnance on NVA positions.
The first and critical tactical lesson that should be learned from the Battle of Hue is that it requires combined arms forces equipped with armor, infantry, engineers, and fires that can penetrate thick concrete defensive lines and urban positions. Anyone who might believe that armor should not be used in urban operations only need review the examples of its successful use in cities throughout history—Hue being one of many—to be disabused of this flawed notion. To achieve a quicker victory, armor must not only be used, but must also be well protected by infantry, engineers, artillery, and the weapons systems they employ so that a symbiotic relationship between armor and these other combat arms are all working together to defeat the enemy. The combination of M-48 tanks and the M-50 Ontos was unique to this battle. The M-48 tanks provided protection and firepower while the Ontos provided firepower and mobility. Both armored vehicles were used together and protected by the US Marines, who in turn were protected by the armored vehicles. When possible, artillery was also used to soften strongpoints. Standalone recoilless rifle systems also proved valuable and were used frequently due to their ability to be carried into and set up in tighter spaces, with their ammunition packing a powerful punch against enemy positions. These combined arms teams are a must in urban operations.
A second tactical lesson learned during the battle of Hue was the effectiveness in the deliberate use of tear gas by US forces, a tool that has not been used frequently in the history of urban combat. Many nations have signed prohibitions on the use of riot control agents, which includes tear gas, in war. The United States strongly debated the use of tear gas following Vietnam to include highlighting the misuse of such agents by American soldiers, especially in dealing with enemy tunnels. The United States did eventually ratify prohibitions—but also issued a presidential executive order allowing the use of riot control agents under certain situations. Hue provides a strong example of how tear gas, specifically, can be used in urban warfare to limit collateral damage and save the lives of soldiers. Senior political and military leaders might use Hue to reexamine the policies for the use of tear gas in high-intensity combat where enemy tactics force the use of more dangerous means such as artillery and other munitions. An after-action report from 1/5 is enough to make this a convincing argument:
During 1/5’s battle inside the Citadel fortress, which kicked off on 13 February 1968, the battalion progressed a total of four blocks along our avenue of attack, and had secured a total of sixteen city blocks within our assigned area of operations after nearly two weeks of heavy street fighting and after suffering nearly 50% casualties at the hands of a well-prepared, determined force of NVA soldiers, a force that was finally estimated to be nearly 11,000 strong in the Hue City area of operations. On 25 February 1968, Marines from Charlie Company shot off three E-8 gas launchers, each carrying about 40 CS gas grenades, toward the enemy’s last known position. The next morning, 1/5 took control of the remaining twelve city blocks in about three hours, without a single casualty, because the NVA was not equipped to deal with the tear gas attack and was forced to withdraw. No one can ever be certain that the use of chemical weapons would have made a difference in the initial stages of the battle (although we were all issued new gas masks the day before we went into Hue City!), but many of the veterans of that battle have often wondered what might have happened if the E-8’s had been deployed in the early stages of the battle. We recommend the judicious use of chemical weapons, such as tear gas, etc. for urban combat operations.
The battle of Hue is well documented and there are several resources available for students of urban operations to review and research. This urban fight provided a wealth of information and a treasure trove of lessons learned that will enable future military commanders to understand the challenges of fighting in urban environments. But, when considered in the context of other urban warfare case studies, the Battle of Hue is especially remarkable in the ways in which it so clearly highlights many of the lessons that are perpetually relearned by units confronting enemies defending from within dense urban terrain.
John Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute, codirector of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project, and host of the Urban Warfare Project Podcast. He previously served as a fellow with the chief of staff of the Army’s Strategic Studies Group. He served twenty-five years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq.
Major Jayson Geroux is an infantry officer with The Royal Canadian Regiment and currently with 1st Canadian Infantry Division Headquarters. He has been involved in urban operations training for two decades and is an urban operations subject matter expert and urban warfare historian, having participated in, planned, executed, and intensively instructed on urban operations for the past seven years. He has served twenty-six years in the Canadian Armed Forces, which included operational tours to the former Yugoslavia (Bosnia-Herzegovina) and Afghanistan.
A special thanks to Modern War Institute intern Harshana Ghoorhoo, whose initial research and framework of this and following case studies set the conditions for success.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or that of any organization with which the authors are affiliated, including the 1st Canadian Division Headquarters, the Canadian Armed Forces, and the Canadian Department of National Defence.