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Paracel Islands had been claimed by South Vietnam and China since the departure of the French from their Indochina colony in 1955.
The Paracel Islands are surrounded by productive fishing grounds and by potential oil and gas reserves. In 1932, French Indochina annexed the islands and set up a weather station on Pattle Island; maintenance was continued by its successor, Vietnam.
A year after the Paris peace accord had been signed on Jan. 17, 1973, peace had still not been achieved in Vietnam. During that period, the North Vietnamese continued their attacks now that the US had completely withdrawn their forces, with the definitive conquest of South Vietnam as the goal. The South Vietnamese forces’ erosion in the field increased in the face of a series of concerted North Vietnamese offensives and as drastic American aid reduction began to impact heavily on their ability to wage war.
A new nature of the relationship between the US and China
As told by Albert Grandolini in his book Target Saigon 1973-75 Volume 2: The Fall of South Vietnam The Beginning of the End January 1974-March 1975, as the months passed, the Saigon government of President Nguyen Van Thieu still hoped – in a clear case of wishful thinking – that the new détente policy that Washington had developed with Moscow and Beijing would lead to some leverage on their part China, towards their North Vietnamese ally, restraining them in their desire to conclude the conflict militarily.
But even that last hope would be shattered by an unexpected naval incident in the Paracel Islands that revealed the new nature of the relationship that was developing between the US and China; the beginning of an unwritten alliance against the Soviet Union within the wider context of the Cold War.
Paracel Islands contested
Since the departure of the French from their Indochina colony in 1955, the contested Paracel Islands had been claimed by South Vietnam and China. They are roughly equidistant from both countries: 300km south of Yuli, Hainan Island, and 370km east of Da Nang. The archipelago is divided into two island groups: to the northeast is the Amphitrite Group, with Woody Island the largest feature; to the southwest is the Crescent Group, with the main Pattle, Money and Robert Islands on the western side and Drummond, Duncan and Palm Islands on the eastern side. About 80km of water separates the Amphitrite and Crescent Groups. Since 1959, the South Vietnamese had implanted small outposts on the Crescent Group, while Chinese had a small base manned by militia on Woody Island of the Amphitrite Group. Until 1973, both sides made episodic naval patrols to reassert their rights. However, with the prospect of oil deposits in the area, Saigon granted permission for drilling to Western companies.
South Vietnamese seizes six islands in the Spratlys
China, too, began drilling an oil well on Woody Island in December 1973, reinforcing its garrison to two naval infantry battalions. As early as July 1973, a series of provocations and reprisals led the contenders onto a collision course. In August, the South Vietnamese seized six islands in the Spratlys, another contested group of islands, 700km southeast of Paracel. A month later, Saigon proclaimed its ownership of 10 islands of this group. In October, numerous Chinese trawlers appeared in the vicinity of the South Vietnamese-held Crescent Group. Militias even reoccupied Duncan Island, from where they had been evicted in 1959. They were disembarked from an LST (Landing Ship Tank), escorted by two Kronshtadt-class submarine chasers which also drove off the South Vietnamese fishing boats. The VNN (Vietnamese Navy, Navy of South Vietnam) retaliated by harassing the Chinese trawlers, seizing several boats in November 1973, their crews being detained in Da Nang before their release. On Jan. 10, 1974, two Chinese trawlers again disembarked militia to temporarily occupy Robert Island.
Countering that last move, six days later, the VNN sent the frigate HQ-16 to reinforce the platoon-sized garrison of the Crescent Group. Upon arriving, while manoeuvring to land 15 troops on Money Island, it surprised armed Chinese trawlers Nos 407 and 416, which were landing reinforcements on Robert Island. HQ-16 tried to chase them away by firing warning shots. Saigon, now determined to reassert its sovereignty of the area, dispatched additional ships under Captain Ha Van Ngac: the destroyer HQ-4, the frigate HQ-5 and the corvette HQ-10, one of the two engines of the latter breaking down en route.
Upon receiving this news, the Chinese South Sea Fleet ordered the Type 04-class Kronshtadt-class submarine chasers Nos 271 and 274 to proceed to the Crescent Group from Yulin Naval Base in Hainan Island, followed by two Type 010 (Chinese version Soviet T-43-Class) oceangoing minesweepers, Nos 389 and 396. Finally, two Hainan submarine chasers, Nos 281 and 282, were also dispatched from Shantou. They received air cover during their high-speed transit from standing patrols of Shenyang J-6 fighters.
Removing Chinese flags
On Jan. 17, the destroyer HQ-4 landed troops to remove the Chinese flags planted on Robert and Money Islands. The confrontation continued on the following day with the Chinese trawler No. 407 being rammed and damaged. Meanwhile, the VNN received orders to reoccupy Duncan Island. The operation was launched or early morning of Jan. 19 when HQ-16 and HQ-10 cut across the central lagoon of the Crescent Group. Meanwhile, HQ-4 and HQ-5 had circled around Money Island from the south with the landing troops. HQ-5 landed a 40-man group of SEAL commandos. They encountered fierce resistance from the entrenched Chinese troops, suffering three killed and several wounded, and were forced to withdraw in their rubber boats.
A smaller landing party also met opposition on the nearby Palm Island and withdrew. Shielded behind Duncan Island, the Chinese task force split in two and surprised the South Vietnamese. Even though the Vietnamese had the edge in terms of ships displacements and firepower the Chinese commander chose to close in to make use of the higher speed and agility of his ships, aided by the emitting of smoke screens.
The Kronshtadt-class submarine chasers Nos 271 and 274 boldly surged forward, heading towards HQ-4 and HQ-5, and minesweepers Nos 389 and 396 went after HQ-10 and HQ-16. The two Hainan-class submarine chasers were kept in reserve. Still engaged in the recovery of their disembarked men, the VNN commander ordered his ships to engage the charging Chinese at a distance of 2,000 metres. HQ-4 and HQ-5 opened fire and hit the Kronshtadt No. 274, while HQ-10 and HQ-16 also fired on the minesweepers. However adroitly exploiting the blind spots of the VNN radar-directed guns at such close distance, the Chinese ships raked their enemies with their twin 25mm, twin 37mm and 85mm guns.
The battle rages for 40 minutes
The battle raged for 40 minutes, the Chine concentrating their fire on the radars and communications gear of the enemy ships. The minesweepers focused their fire on the corvette HQ-10, putting its remaining engine out of service. The crew was ordered to evacuate the ship, but its captain, Major Nguyen Van Tha, remained on board and went down with his ship near the Antelope Reef. Meanwhile, the minesweeper No. 396 was hit hard by 127mm and appeared to be sinking, but managed to beach on Duncan Island. The two Hainan-class submarine chasers, Nos 271 and 274, now entered the fray, shielded behind smoke screens, and engaged the South Vietnamese at close range with their twin 25mm and 57mm guns, and even ASW RBU-1200 rockets. The VNN ships were ordered to disengage to allow more room for directing their heavier 76.2mm and 127mm guns. But in the confusion, the frigate HQ-16 was hit by a 127mm shell from HQ-5, which was aiming at the Kronshtadts.
The US don’t not lend help to the South Vietnamese
With all their ships damaged, 53 men killed and many injured, VNN task force withdrew towards Da Nang, having been comprehensively defeated, covered by a flight of VNAF (Vietnamese Air Force, Air Force of South Vietnam) F-5As. Although the US Navy dispatched a flotilla of destroyers from the Philippines to monitor the fighting in the Paracel Islands, they observed from afar and did not lend help to the South Vietnamese, not even helping to rescue their sailors. Fortunately, the passing Dutch oiler Koponiella picked up 23 survivors from HQ-10. On Jan. 29, some 15 South Vietnamese soldiers who escaped in lifeboats were rescued by fishing boats near Qui Nhon. The damaged Chinese ships limped back towards Hainan, but the submarine chaser No. 274 was forced to stop at Boisée Island for repairs.
China occupies Paracel Islands
The Chinese moved quickly to occupy all the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam, the South Vietnamese Army) occupied islands. The South Sea Fleet mobilised one frigate, five torpedo boats and eight patrol boats to support the amphibious flotilla of armed trawlers, patrol boats and minesweepers. The assault on Jan. 20 was preceded by strafing and rocketing of Robert, Pattle and Money Islands by J-6 fighter-bombers. All the objectives were quickly seized, the Chinese capturing 48 prisoners, including an American liaison officer from the US embassy in Saigon. All were later released in Hong Kong through the Red Cross.
A plan to reconquest Paracel Islands
President Thieu flew to Da Nang to plan a reconquest of the islands. This proposed operation consisted of a VNN Task Force of six destroyers and frigates, supporting an amphibious element comprising Marines, LSTs and patrol craft. At the same time, Saigon requested the support of the US Navy to shield the impending operation by deploying ships between the Paracel Islands and Hainan, but to no avail. The scheme was scrubbed when it was learnt that the Chinese instructed the East Sea Fleet of Guanzhou to send three Type 01 Chengdu-class guided-missile frigates, armed with SY-1 anti-ship missiles, to the Paracel Islands, while three 033 Romeo-class submarines of the 32nd Submarine Flotilla were sighted between Da Nang and Pattle Island. In the following weeks, the Chinese – under the command of the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army) deputy’s chief of staff, Liu Huaqing continuously sent reinforcements to the occupied islands, fortifying them, deploying anti-aircraft guns and building shore facilities and an airstrip.
In a final attempt to reverse the situation, Thieu order a major air strike against an assembly of 40 Chinese ships that was photographed by a VNAF RF-5A Freedom Fighter. By early March 1974, some 120 F-5As were assembled at Da Nang armed and ready to go but at the last instant, on the insistence of the Americans, the operation was cancelled. Facing a growing series of North Vietnamese offensives, this was a diversion of now-scarce military resources that Saigon could not afford.
Target Saigon 1973-75 Volume 2: The Fall of South Vietnam The Beginning of the End January 1974-March 1975 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.