The presence of North Vietnamese forces inside supposedly neutral Cambodia had been a contentious issue for as long as the conflict had been waged. Following the coup of 1970, the new Khmer Republic threw itself in with the South Vietnamese and Americans.
These included the 367th Sapper-Commando Group (specializing in conducting operations inside Cambodia), along with the 13th, 14th, and 15th Battalions of COSVN’s 429th Sapper Brigade and the Phuoc Long Group’s Sapper Battalion 7.
On the night of 21-22 January 1971, a surprise commando raid was launched on the capital’s airport at Ponchentong.
147 North Vietnamese soldiers from Z25 [25th Battalion] of the 367th Sapper Group and from the Phuoc Long Group’s 7th Sapper Battalion launched the attack against the airfield.
The Dac Cong (commando force) managed to pass undetected through the defensive perimeter of the Special Military Region that had been set around Phnom Penh. Once inside they broke into six smaller detachments armed mostly with AK-47 assault rifles and RPG-7 anti-tank rocket launchers.
Firstly an area near the civilian airport, an army transport center and an ammunition warehouse were attacked. It was a diversion. Right after the first explosions, the Vietcong cut the barbed wire and penetrated into the military airport zone on three points. This was only found out later. At the the time, nobody knew where the Vietcong came from, what their targets were, or if this would be the start of a wider general attack.
Once through the wire, the Vietnamese quickly overwhelmed the poorly armed airmen of the Security Battalion on duty that night. Inside the airport a furious barrage of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades was launched against any aircraft found on the runway and nearby buildings.
Only some guardrooms were equipped with outdated cable crank telephone sets. On the whole Air Base, there were less than a hundred rifles. Apart from a few French MAT-49 submachine guns, the rest of the weaponry were action-bolt World War II French MAS-36 rifles. When the Vietcong appeared on the tarmac, the mechanics and the guards were mainly equipped with sticks. With their AK47s, the Vietcong easily cut them down.
One of the commando teams even scaled the adjoining commercial terminal of the civilian airport and after taking position at the international restaurant located on the roof, fired a rocket into the napalm supply depot.
A six hour firefight ensued, with Vietnamese claiming 105 Khmer Air Force planes destroyed on the ground (95% of its fleet), command and control equipment, 100 trucks and other vehicles.
The attackers also managed to set fire to nine fuel storage facilities, and claimed to have killed 300 Cambodian troops on the battlefield.
Khmer/US reports gave a total of 69 aircraft being either completely destroyed or severely damaged on the ground, including T-28D Trojans, nearly all the Shenyang & MiGs, T-37Bs and Fouga Magister jets, all the L-19A Bird Dogs and An-2 transports, the UH-1 helicopter gunships, three VNAF O-1 Bird Dogs and even a VIP transport recently presented to President Lon Nol by the South Vietnamese government.
Khmer reports said 39 AVNK officers and enlisted men lost their lives and another 170 were injured. Six T-28D Trojans which had been temporarily deployed to Battambang airfield, ten GY-80 Horizon light trainers (also stationed at Battambang), eight Alouette II and Alouette III helicopters, two Sikorsky H-34 helicopters, one T-37B jet trainer, and a Fouga Magister jet that had been grounded for repairs were what remained of the Khmer Air Force.
The airfield was paralyzed and unable to conduct air operations for several days while repairs were made and resupplies flown in. The attack also scuppered plans by Lon Nol to provide air support for his “Toan Thang 1-71” (Total Freedom) operation.
North Vietnamese claims report they lost 9 killed, 7 wounded, and 2 missing in the raid. Other sources say 4 were killed during the raid and 15 more shot the next day as they retreated towards Amleang.
The Khmer pilots, who were more valuable than the planes, were not among the casualties.
The Americans quickly began to resupply the Khmer Air Force with new equipment and security around the vicinity was tightened.
Submitted by History Steve
Vietnamese sources: Colonel Pham Xuan Truong; Writing and Document Research: Majors Nguyen Xuan Nghi and Tran Ngoc Tan; Published by Sapper Command, Hanoi, 1992
English sources/citations: Merle Pribbenow, Bob Laymon, BG Y. Yoc Hang, Former Chief of Staff ( TODAY IN KHMER CIVIL WAR HISTORY), The Khmer Air Force