Khmer Rouge Navy- Battle History 1975-79

Phnom Penh: While the Royal Cambodian Naval Base at Ream is once again in the international news, a keen-eyed history buff sent in the following post, which has been slightly edited from the original Russian source. It gives a good account of the limited naval power of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, along with details of known vessels which took part in operations around the Cambodian coast.

With the downfall of the US-backed puppet-state as outcome of the Vietnam War, Cambodia turned “Democratic Kampuchea” under the rule of the Khmer Rouge.

While the new guerrilla fighters were originally friendly to Vietnam, the new government openly sided with China and pursued a hostile policy against Vietnam and Soviet Union.

The Democratic Kampuchea is widely remembered for heavy repression and killing of any form of political opposition, while this is often exploited by anti-communist literature, the reality was that the primary target of the Khmer Rouge were former fighters and leftists population and generally opposed their rule. The eventual downfall of the Democratic Kampuchea (to be replaced with the Soviet-aligned People’s Republic of Kampuchea) came after direct military action by the communist Vietnam and with political Soviet backing, while the United States of America politically opposed this military action in support of China.

The Kampuchean Navy under the new Khmer Rouge government had for backbone 17 American-made patrol boats of “Swift” class. Additionally the Navy possessed also the submarine chaser E-311 (PC-461 class), 3 landing ships LCU and 1 landing ship LCM and a number of river boats.

The Navy was extremely active in border clashes with neighbor nations (both Thailand and Vietnam), in anti-drug operations and engaged in conventional warfare battle with the Vietnamese Navy during the final days of the Khmer Rouge government.

NOTE: This article does not explore the anti-naval operations during the last stage of war which peaked in spring 1975.

Reported only by some western-literature (and deliberately ignored by others) it is very interesting how ground-units of communist guerrilla units committed a true carnage of riverine convoys attempting to supply by river the Army garrisons north to Phnom Penh. The actual number of riverine barges, tugs, small merchants and tankers lost will probably remain poorly known, but all accounts of western and Asian sailors on surviving vessels describe what appears to be a real “turkey-shoot”! Entire small defenseless convoys literally destroyed by accurate and concentrate ground fire (including rockets and conventional artillery), and sometimes use of floating mines placed on the obligated paths of convoys.

A partial list of notable losses is described in the western book “Losing Vietnam: How America abandoned Southeast Asia” by former American general Ira A. Hunt Jr. (As warning, the book follow the classic US-rightist narrative on how Vietnam War was lost due “political interference” of the own US “liberals”, rather than the inevitable consequence of the US imperialist policy of suppressing the people’s self-determination rights and backing cruel unpopular regimes).

It is worth to stress how these successful anti-ships operations not carried individually by Khmer Rouge alone: at the time, the group was part of the united front (FUNK) including also pro-Vietnamese and pro-Soviet guerrilla fronts (they also absorbed later Khmer Rouge dissidents who disagreed with the repressions policies established by the post-war government).

Sources include the magnificent work done by (c)Alexander Rosin on the Russian blog Also included are Vietnamese press reports and articles.

2 May 1975
Kampuchean vessels seized a group of 7 fishing boats from Thailand (27 fishermen captured), including the vessel named “Sinvari” individually seized by PC-126 of “Swift” class

Photo of a South-Vietnamese “Swift” class boat: the core of the Kampuchean Navy

4 May 1975
Kampuchean vessels opened fire against the South Korean merchant Masan Ho.

7 May 1975
Kampuchean vessels seized a Panamanian cargo Vira-II (carrying 2200tons of oil) but detained only for 35 hours and then released.

11 – 14 May 1975
The Kampuchean submarine chaser E-311 (PC-461 class) seized a undefined number of small Thai fishing boats.

12 – 15 May 1975
Mayaguez Incident
The merchant Mayaguez (10485 tons) seized by Kampuchean vessels and crew was removed. “Swift” patrol boats but also the submarine chaser E-311 involved.
It is strongly believed the ship was carrying secret materials taken off Vietnam with the downfall of the South Vietnamese regime.
The American armed forces carried on a military operation to retrieve the vessel, even if the Khmer Rouge government was already working on the release, thus making the whole operation useless.

On 13 May, American aircrafts hit and destroyed three patrol boats of “Swift” class, including one strafed by 20mm fire from an A-7 plane; during the whole conflict, other four patrol boats suffered damages
Other American planes attacked the harbor of Kampong Sam: the only two motor torpedo boats of Yugoslavian origin (built over the “Higgins” design) sunk.

Western sources often mistakenly reports four “Swift” vessels sunk, but the actual toll was three “Swift” and two “Higgins” motor torpedo boats.
Wrongly believing the imprisoned sailors were kept in Ko Tang Island, the Americans prepared a hasty ill-devised rescue operation: on 13 May evening a CH-53 that was going to take part at the rescue crashed in Thailand killing the 12 men onboard.

On 15 May, the American destroyer USS Harold E. Holt approached and seized-back the empty Mayaguez, meanwhile the Khmer Rouge government released the crewmembers using the previously captured Thai fishing vessel Sinvari, to de-escalate the situation. (NOTE: despite the American claim the action was a ship-to-ship boarding, the government already decided to return the ship exactly like it occurred for the Panamanian vessel on 7 May, thus making the operation a not-hostile and harmless endeavor).

While part of the American Administration and military chain of command were aware the Khmer Rouge removed the sailors from Koh Tang, it was too late to stop of divert the attack on the Island. 600 US Marines made an airborne landing with helicopters encountering a fierce resistance by the smaller garrison of Khmer Rouge fighters composed by just 67 men. The landing was a disaster: 3 helicopters CH-53 completely lost due heavy anti-aircraft gunfire and launch of RPG rockets, while two CH-53 and two HH-53 suffered heavy damages. Americans lost 15 KIA and 41 WIA, in addition to other 23 killed due a CH-53 crashing in Thailand while leaving to take part at the operations. Interestingly, the stiff ground Khmer Rouge forced the US Marines to a hasty and confused retreat, leaving behind bodies of soldiers and 3 men still alive (declared MIA) despite the American claimed “no man left behind” rule.

The ground commander of the Khmer Rouge forces, Em Son, later revealed one Marine was captured wounded and executed as reprisal for the death of one of his men in the firefight and finally the other two Marines captured on the island one week after the battle and brought to the mainland, where they eventually executed.

Khmer Rouge fighters lost 13 men on the island’s defense, while losses of the Navy and ground personal during the bombing of the mainland are unknown.

The overall result was a large US military failure rendered pointless by the political decision of the Khmer Rouge to release both ship and crewmembers: while the Khmer Rouge ground forces performed well in battle, the Navy could do little to counter the American air-superiority and suffered heavily.

19 May 1975
The Kampuchean submarine chaser E-311 (PC-461 class) defected to Thailand. It is the only known full-defection of an Asian communist military warship known.

24 May 1975
Vietnamese transports T-643 and T-657 made a landing and re-captured Tho Chu Island: Kampuchea previously seized the island.
Despite having fought side-by-side until short time, the newly formed Kampuchea (Cambodia) under Khmer Rouge rule directly opposed Vietnam due allegiance with China.

Operations to liberate the island concluded in two days. The Vietnamese captured many prisoners, weapons and boats used to land the invading forces.

29 May 1975
Clash between Kampuchean patrol boats with two Thai warships, unclear results

5 June 1975
Vietnamese transports T-643 and T-647 made a landing to recapture larger the larger Pho Quoc Island, augmented by two LCM-8 type landing boats and escorted by 3 PCF boats.
Eventually also two Vietnamese Project062 gunboats joined the operations.

Kampuchean troops had previously landed on the island using LSM ship and with support of 3 PCF boats. This time the fight against Kampucheans lasted until 13 June.

During the operations, Vietnamese forces suffered 4 KIA and 14 WIA, capturing the Kampuchean garrison. At some point, transport ship T-657 encountered an enemy motorboat (likely not a “Swift” class boat but a smaller unarmed boat) and sunk her with gunfire.

12 June 1975
Clash between a Kampuchean patrol boat with a Thai patrol boat, unclear results

1976 – 1978
The Kampuchean Navy converted 10 fishing vessels (including some captured from Thailand) into auxiliary patrol boats, armed with 75mm mortars and machine guns. Numbers, names and details of these vessels are unknown and all data likely lost with the downfall of the Khmer Rouge.

22 February 1976
A clash between six Thai warships with the Kampuchean Navy reportedly resulted in the loss of a Kampuchean patrol boat (a “Swift” class or aux. patrol boat).

31 August 1977
Two Kampuchean vessels (either “Swift” or aux. patrol boat) sunk one Vietnamese fishing boat.

1 April 1978
A Vietnamese warship reportedly sunk two boats of the Kampuchean Navy northeast of Hon Doc Island (“Swift” class or aux. patrol boat).

On unclear day of 1978 a yacht or a sailing vessel with two Australian citizens seized by Kampuchean vessel (likely engaged in drug trafficking). Both later executed.

Late April 1978
Kampuchean boats seized the yacht Mary K. off Koh Wai allegedly engaged in drug trafficking. The ship seizing the yacht was likely an auxiliary patrol vessel, that also opened fire, hit and wrecked the yacht.
The two American citizens onboard were eventually killed in a Khmer Rouge jail. Both men confessed to be CIA agents, but this remains unproved.

13 August 1978
Kampuchean boats seized the sailing ship Foxy Lady off Koh Tang engaged in drug trafficking (the ship sailed to Thailand to retrieve a cargo). One Canadian was killed during the boarding, while a New Zealander and Briton citizens were imprisoned and later killed in jail. The traffickers confessed to be CIA agents (likely under torture).

8 September 1978
Two Vietnamese warships reportedly sunk two boats of the Kampuchean Navy close Hon Doc Island (“Swift” class or aux. patrol boat).

23 November 1978
Kampuchean boats seized the American yacht Iwalani, engaged in drug trafficking and arresting two American citizens. Reportedly, the yacht scuttled and the two Americans allegedly admitted to be spies: they were the last western citizens executed (burned alive) by their jailers during the downfall of the Khmer Rouge government.

While it is known they planned to meet on sea a Thai military vessel with a corrupted officer to receive a cargo of drugs, the connection with CIA remain unproven and likely obtained due torture.

NOTE: interestingly, it appears little to nothing was done by the American authorities to secure the release of the imprisoned western citizens. At the time, the USA were interested in growing ties with communists China in anti-Soviet policy. This behavior was only stressed by the subsequent American political moves, officially opposing the Vietnamese military intervention to topple the Khmer Rouge government.

One of biggest mysteries of the Kampuchean Navy it’s the amount of support and ships transferred from the People’s Republic of China before the downfall of the Khmer Rouge government.

While some western sources keep silent of this due lack of their own data and knowledge of this transfer, some traces can be found in Russian evaluation, scant details of Chinese admission and the (likely inflated) data from Vietnamese.

According the Chinese sources, plans were agreed in May 1976 and included the delivery of four large patrol vessels of Type 037, 10 patrol boats of type 062, 12 motor torpedo boats of type 026 (and transfer of 48 torpedoes), one 80-tons minesweeper, one 300-tons tanker. All patrol boats and motor torpedo boats planned for delivery between 1977 and 1978.

According own Chinese sources, plans could not be properly completed: between 1975 and 1977 the Kampuchean Navy received only four Type 062 patrol boats and two unidentified “800 tons fast ships” (note: the size of these undefined vessels is the double of the type 037 patrol ships! It is possible they were just large trawlers or small cargo vessels intended for not-military purpose).

On the other hand, Vietnamese sources assessed in January 1979 the Kampuchean Navy as composed by following vessels:
10 Type 062 patrol vessels, 10 Type26 motor torpedo boats (often incorrectly reported as Soviet-made project123K), between 10 and 16 “Swift” class patrol boats (NOTE: at real there were likely between 9 and 14 survived “Swift” boats), two unspecified “anti-submarine ships” (possibly a misidentification) and a number of small fast boats).

6 – 7 January 1979
Battle of Ream
The key naval battle of the conflict, usually unreported by Western sources and press, was indeed an active gunnery fight; it was also likely the very last all-gunfire naval battle of history between two combat fleets of significant size! Indeed the battle occurred after the Battle of Paracels Island (often reported as the last all-gunfire naval battle), while the Battle of Chigua Reef occurred in 1988 can be hardly classified as an equal naval battle between two fleets. The subsequent description of battle follow the Vietnamese view, due lack of direct Cambodian sources, but due realistic losses of Kampuchean Navy, the report is likely.

The Vietnamese Navy deployed a task force with the purpose to block or lure in battle the Kampuchean Fleet and allow the amphibious landing of troops at a different location.
Interestingly, the Vietnamese Navy made heavy use of former American vessels: the frigates HQ-01 and HQ-03, the corvettes HQ-05 and HQ-07 and the patrol boat T-613 (a former PGM-39 patrol boat), in addition to the following Project062 patrol boats: T-197, T-199, T-203, T-205 and T-215.

There is no Kampuchea record of the battle, but given the near-total destruction of the Fleet, it is likely Vietnamese claims match reality. The first engagement saw T-203 and T-215 sinking two unidentified Kampuchean vessels and damaging a third one.

Photo of the American patrol ship USS PGM-63 on trial: lead-ship of her class including the boat captured by North Vietnam and renamed T-613

After midnight, the Kampucheans attempted a sortie from Ream harbor with five vessels and they engaged the corvettes HQ-05 and HQ-07 that sunk an unidentified vessel and damaged a second one. Both Vietnamese ships suffered light damages, while also T-613 suffered heavy damages and forced to retreat. Identity of Kampuchea vessels is unclear.
Vietnamese sources identify them as Type026 motor torpedo boats, but their delivery was denied by China (this denial is of course unconfirmed nor confirmed by neutral source), so they could also have been PCF “Swift” boats (5 units were lost between 1976 and 1979: identity of 5 losses of the Kampuchean Navy between 1976 and 1978 it is unclear).

Four Kampuchea Type062 patrol boats made another attack, believing to have heavily damaged the corvettes and aiming to finish them, however the Vietnamese organized a combat line to exploit the longer rage of their stronger artillery, while T-203 and T-215 fought on closer rank: T-197 and T-205 joined them, while corvettes HQ-05 and HQ-07 covered them. At some point the combat lines become so confused that corvettes had to halt fire to avoid friendly-fire hits (like also because both Kampuchean and Vietnamese used the same class of units: the Type062), while HQ-01 joined the combat. During the close-quarter fight, T-197 and T-205 attempted to finish a damaged unidentified Type062, however forced to pullback due enemy fire.

Kampuchea shore-artillery helped their ships, targeting HQ-05 and HQ-07 and forcing them to turn south. At the same time HQ-05 was further attacked by four Kampuchean units and was saved only by T-203 and T-215 that damaged two unidentified attacking units. T-215 however suffered direct hits with 37mm and 25mm, with 4 sailors KIA (including captain) and 6 WIA: she was saved by T-205 while the rest of Kampuchean units retreated under the combined Vietnamese fire.

Photo of South Vietnamese corvette HQ-10, she sunk in battle against the Chinese Navy. The HQ-05 was former South Vietnamese sister-ship HQ-09, ex-USS Sentry. The Vietnam People’s Navy made large use of former South Vietnamese sailors to operate the American-made warships captured in 1975.

At the end of the battle, Vietnamese forces successfully blocked the Kampuchea Navy to prevent raids on the amphibious landing, at the cost of (at least) 2 patrol boats heavily damaged, and 2 corvettes lightly damaged, Kampuchean units lost an estimated 3 unidentified units while other 5 suffered damages.

10 January 1979
While approaching the harbor of Ream (after the end of the naval battle), The Vietnamese patrol boats PCF T-102 and T-107 came under fire from harbor. T-107 suffered 2 hits with 1 KIA and 6 WIA.
It appears the fire come from two unidentified Kampuchean ships, however they suffered combined fire from HQ-01,HQ-03, T-203, T-205, T-197 and T-199 and sunk.
Currently it is unclear the identity of the ships (if Type062, Type026 or auxiliary patrol boats (ex-trawlers)).

Photo of sister-ship frigate HQ-02 of the South Vietnam Navy (ship fled to Philippines in 1975), HQ-01 was former South Vietnamese HQ-15, ex-USS Absecon. Her single 127mm gun (in addition to one mortar and machineguns) made her the most powerful warship in terms of fire-power that the Vietnam Navy dispatched in Cambodia. HQ-03 (former South Vietnamese HQ-04) was of different class and armed with two 76mm guns.

Currently there is no detailed Vietnamese account of all the Kampuchean vessels found in harbor by advancing troops or the ones scuttled in harbor to avoid capture, while these losses appears to be heavy, the lack of a detailed list make impossible to figure out details of the Battle of Ream and the clash on 10 January.

With the establishment of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, aligned to Vietnam and the Soviet Union, rebuilding the Navy was a primary objective. By February 1979, nine “Swift” patrol boats were the backbone of the new navy: P-122, P-124, P-126, P-127, P-128, P-129, P-130, P-131 and P-132 (out of the 17 available in 1975 to the Kampuchean Navy, meaning 8 were lost in action, clearly including P-123 and P-125).

While China never had time to deliver the Type 037 ships before the 1979 war, Soviet sailors observed project206 boats in Cambodian harbors in 1982 (before the real delivery of such ships) and while a Russian source proposed they could have seen ex-Kampuchean Type-037, it is likely they were genuine project206 of the Vietnamese Navy stationed in Cambodia.

28 December 1981
A Kampuchean patrol boat (likely a “Swift” type) engaged and was sunk in battle by 3 Thai warships close Koh Kong province. Of 13 crewmembers, there were 6 Vietnamese advisors and 7 Cambodians. 8 KIA, 5 POW. The Soviet Union begun transferring new Soviet-made warships by 1984.

By the end of 1982, the Kampuchean Navy operated only 6 “Swift” class patrol boats (including P-122, P-124 and P-126), meaning 3 were lost or scuttled. The Navy rebuilt since 1984 with Soviet-provided ships.

UPDATE: The closing lines about the Navy being rebuilt since 1984 with Russian boats is true, but most of those boats no longer survive. Of the four Stenka’s at Ream, only two are seaworthy, two that were refitted at a Malaysian shipyard in Penang in the late 90’s, with Caterpillar diesel engines etc. The other two remain alongside at the Ream pier but do not work. The Russian Turya class boats are definitely long gone- submitted.

This article is reproduced with permission from SOVIET EMPIRE

DISCLAIMER: Even if this work is fruit of a passionate effort, it was produced out of amateur hobby interest and may include sporadic errors (especially for some events with unclear date).

However, it is suggested to pay attention to updates or corrections that may occur even years after the original publication
Any kind of suggestion, correction, question is welcome through private message: you are free to contact the author on forum even after years since the last update.

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