Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad #2: French Secret Service in Indochina

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of espionage in Vietnam. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

My Dear Friends,

The new CS Vietnam game features units and scenarios of the First Indochina War. French espionage was important to the CEFEO, (Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient,) and helped them fight the Viet Minh. This article gives a picture of that espionage, and is an overview of the French Secret Services in Indochina.

Strategic Level Intelligence

The French High Commissioner was the one who "directed the war." Emile Bollaert held this position during the late 1940s, and brought the former emperor Bao Dai in as Vietnam's political leader.  The High Commissioner was the political link to the associated states like the US, but also closely coordinated his actions with the C-in-C. (Commander in Chief of CEFEO) The staff that supported him was known as the DGD. (Direction Generate de la Documentation) When General Jean de Lattre became C-in-C in 1951, he was also assigned as High Commissioner.

The SDECE (Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage) and the Surete Nationale provided intelligence to DGD, but also worked closely with the military intelligence organization, 2e Bureau.

The SPDN (Secretariat Permanent de la Defense Nationale) fed information to the DGD, and was made up of the various military attaches in south-east Asia, as far away as Tokyo and Hong Kong. The attaches were not well directed, and their HUMINT efforts were mostly wasted.

The GCR (Groupe de Controles Radio-Electriques) performed interception of radio communications, and radiogoniometry (direction finding.) They played a prominent ELINT and SIGINT role in providing information on Viet Minh VM troop movements. They also provided information to other intelligence services.

The Autonomous Listening and Direction Finding Company CAER, (compagnie autonome d’écoute et de radiogoniométrie) moved to Saigon and Hanoi with its listening centers, and a semi-fixed chain of eight direction finders was deployed on the peninsula. This chain is reinforced with two sections of mobile direction finders with six positions each.

In 1950, the CAER contributed to the location and assessment of Viet Minh forces during the evacuation of Cao Bang and, in particular, from Lang Son by Colonial Road No. 4 (RC 4). The picture below is one of the fixed direction finders. (Radiogoniometrie Fixe - CAER)

Fixed Radiogoniometry Station

Fixed Radiogoniometry Station

SDECE

The "exterior" intelligence agency, SDECE was analogous to the US CIA, although was not purely civilian and had many military officers. Its responsibilities went beyond military, and was under control of the French Prime Minister in Paris. The director of SDECE during the late Indochina war was Pierre Boursicot, and the Saigon chief was Colonel Maurice Belleux. The SDECE was the largest and best funded French intelligence agency. There were four branches, SR, Counter-espionage, STR, and GCMA.

The SR (Service de Renseignement) worked exclusively outside of Indochina. China, Taiwan, and Thailand were a priority. The SR employed array of correspondents and spies, mostly performing HUMINT, and some COMINT. The agents were mostly westerners, and had trouble penetrating oriental societies, and the task was more difficult after China went Communist in 1949.  As the new Chinese regime consolidated its power, old spy networks disappeared.

The counter-espionage organizaton in SDECE was "Brigades de Contre-espionnage Opérationnelles,"called "Brigades" for short. This group had many challenges due to inability of French and Vietnamese military personnel to maintain basic rules of security. The Viet Minh were always actively trying to exploit this.

The STR (Service Technique des Recherches) was an analytical service, and was successful with decoding and exploiting Viet Minh radio signals. Starting in 1951, the VM used radios down to the battalion level. Increased reliance on radio communication, and lack of security provided STR with a very large wealth of information. Before the campaign against Nghia Lo in October 1951, STR learned that the VM 312th Division had supplies for only a month. When the offensive started going seriously wrong, STR decrypts provided a vivid and interesting picture of 312th  Division commander failing to answer questions from Vo Nguyen Giap.

In September 1952, the Viet Minh changed their codes as main force units moved into Thai country. For a few days, the French High Command was in the dark. STR soon mastered the new codes, but the French did not know the configuration of Viet Minh units in the Northwest Zone. This contributed to the loss of Nghia Lo.  A later report criticized the intellectual laziness of certain echelons by over-reliance on STR decrypts, and not employing other methods.

The covert "action branch" of the SDECE was the GCMA. (Groupement des Commandos Mixtes Aéroportés) Major Roger Trinquier was in charge of this rather large group of "Maquis," (guerillas,) numbering about 20,000. Organized in 1951, the GCMA mission was to organize guerrilla and sabotage operations, and escape and evasion networks in areas occupied by the Viet Minh.

The French knew most of the ethnic minorities were willing to fight the Vietnamese Communists in exchange of protection and civic aid. So, the GCMA heavily recruited from the following tribes of Indochina: Bahnar, Bru, Cham, Halang, Hre, Jarai, Jehs, Katus, Koho, Hmong, Raglai, Rengao, Rhade, Sedang, Steng, Meo, and Nungs.

Although Trinquier later became a known counterinsurgency expert, the GCMA lacked intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities needed to run such an operation. Rather, the GCMA was an operations outfit. Maquis commando units had about 1000 trained personnel. Their operating approach was adapted to politico-military missions, from psych ops or civic action to direct action.

Trinquier visited his men often, and emphasized the necessity of selecting the best possible indigenous personnel to co-command these units, as they would help to ensure cohesion and effectiveness, and to take equal care in choosing a 2nd-in-command. In most cases, leaders were sent to Vung Tau Junior Officers School. As for the GCMA cadres acting as military advisors to Maquis units, their mission from province to village level was threefold: establish a self-defence system; train Maquis recruits, and establish a base of operations.

The GCMA often lacked funding and material resources. Despite high success, it suffered from a lack of support, and hostile incomprehension by the  French High command. Further, lack of funding was a problem for the CEFEO, generally. The solution was "Operation X," a clandestine narcotics traffic operation. It was so secret that only high-ranking French and Vietnamese officials knew of its existence. During its peak years from 1951 to 1954, Operation X was sanctioned at the highest levels by Colonel Belleux of SDECE and General Raoul Salan.

Major Trinquier assured Operation X a supply of opium by ordering his liaison oflicers serving with Meo commander Touby Lyfoung and Tai Federation leader Deo Van Long to buy opium at a competitive price. Not only did this supplement financing, but it maintained indigenous tribe allegiance. Unless they provided an outlet for local opium production, the prosperity and loyalty of their hill tribe allies would be lost.

As an example of a GCMA operation, Lt Nung organized a Maquis in the upper Red River region near the Chinese border in May 1952. After choosing an able Montanyard, Lt. Long, as his deputy, Nung selected 40 commandos. All training and preparation completed, the "Maquis Cardamone" was ready to go by early 1953, and by the end of June, had rallied 600 volunteers. Some came from a Tonkin village, Phong Tho, that Nung liberated from VM control.

Nung's scout network informed him in September 1953 that the enemy planned an operation to recapture Phong Tho. The VM battalion staging area was at the Red River town of Lao Kay, west of Phong Tho. Nung decided to hit the VM at Lao Kay with a combined ground-airborne assault before their offensive could mature.

Lao Kay is situated on the east bank of the river. The Viet Minh established a temporary headquarters there, basing their troops across the river near the adjoining village of Coc Leu. During the night of the 5 October 1953, 500 Maquis commandos led by Lt. Long infiltrated to within 100 metres of Coc Leu, a jump-off point that also served as a block position for VM retreat. At daybreak, Lt Nung and 40 of his commandos jumped from three Dakotas, landing in their designated DZ south of Coc Leu and Long's position. After assembling and linking with Long's commandos, Nung's paras spearheaded the surprise attack.

Though caught off guard, the Viet Minh mounted a hasty counterattack that was beaten back. Nung's men drove them across the river towards Lao Kay. By day's end, the Viet Minh had been completely routed, their arms and supply caches destroyed. The VM offensive was thwarted. As a bonus, Nung's men blew the only bridge connecting Lao Kay to China, thus temporarily severing a primary Viet Minh supply line.

Surete Nationale

The Surete, or Security Service, was a police force that provided political intelligence. Before 1945, it was very powerful and well-informed. Not only was it an intelligence gathering agency, but also had policing powers of arrest and repression. The Japanese coup of 1945 and the short period afterward dislocated and destroyed Surete's networks.It was slowly reconstituted but never regained its previous power, especially after many of its powers were progressively passed to the new Vietnamese Surete.

Pierre Perrier became the new director of Surete. He was in direct liaison with other civil and military intelligence services.  Andre Moret, who previously directed French police in Shanghai, took charge of reorganizing the Surete’s activities in Tonkin, while M. Thierry did the same in Cambodia.

2e Bureau EMIFT

The French military organization has different bureaus corresponding to function. The 2nd or (Deuxième) 2e Bureau is intelligence, while the 3e is operations, and so forth. This is similar to US military with G2 or S2 being intelligence and G3 or S3 as operations.

Every French military organization down to the battalion and groupement level also had their own intelligence staff, or 2e Bureaus. These lower level ones worked closely with reconnaissance, but supplemented with analysis. HUMINT was typically available through prisoner interrogation. These staffs might also have access to COMINT from STR decrypts, or aerial photography from the Air Force 2e Bureau.

The top staff was the French 2e Bureau EMIFT. (2e Bureau des Etat-Major Interarmées et Forces Terrestres.) The 2e Bureau Chief was Colonel Boussarie, and his Deputy Chief, Colonel Gracieux. He had 15 analytical staff members.

The 2e Bureau EMIFT Motto was "Nihil mirare, nihil contemptare, omnia intelligere."  Be surprised at nothing, disregard nothing, and understand everything.

The C-in-C also had a staff, called SRO, (Service de Renseignement Opérationnel.) The Saigon chief was General Meyer. Its mission was to provide information from the Viet Minh controlled areas, and information from VM regular units that infiltrated in Franco-Vietnamese controlled areas. Most of the information SRO provided was through agents. (HUMINT) It was similar to that produced by the sector, or territory, 2e Bureau where the intelligence officer a network of informers and spies. However, the SRO lacked Vietnamese speaking officers who could deal with the Vietnamese spies or who could themselves venture into Viet Minh-controlled areas.

The French Air Force and Navy also had their 2e Bureaus. An important part of the Air Force 2e Bureau, which fed the 2e Bureau EMIFT, was air-related intelligence, such as Chinese Air Force capabilities in the Yunnan and Kwang Si provinces. Photographic interpretation was based on two reconnaissance squadrons: EROM 80 (Escadrille de reconnaissance d'Outre-mer 80, Grumman RF 8F Bearcat,) and ERP2/19 (Escadrille de Reconnaissance Photo 2/19 "Armagnac," B-26.)

Under the CEFEO, subordinate administrative commands directed operations, logistics, and training. These administrative commands also had their own 2e Bureaus. A key intelligence organization was the 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT, (Forces Terrestres du Nord Vietnam and Zone Opérationnelle du Tonkin.) This covered the Tonkin area where the biggest struggle with the Viet Minh was. Lt. Col. Levain was the Chief. In the south,  Col. Antoine Savani ran the 2e Bureau of South Vietnam. (2e Bureau au Forces Terrestres du Sud Vietnam)

Another exclusive source for the 2e Bureau EMIFT was the 2e Bureau of the Territories, Tonkin, Cochin-China, Central Annam etc. They often had their own networks of informants, which had to be cleared and approved from 2e Bureau EMIFT. The information received from these depended on ability and initiative of the intelligence officer. If the officer researched the enemy, and acquainted himself with his jurisdiction, then the information could be very good. Zone or sector intelligence officers were dealing with the local population, which they had to pacify, so as to be able to receive information. The language barrier was always there, and interpreters had to be carefully chosen to avoid infiltration by Viet Minh agents.

Collaboration with Other Agencies

The SDECE worked with an MI6 (British Intelligence) liaison officer in Saigon. And, two US CIA officers were liaisons to the SDECE. A CIA liaison was attached to the CGMA. (Action branch.)

In 1954, Colonel Belleux and US Edward Lansdale’s Saigon Military Mission (SMM) collaborated on future US-France relations.

The French were wary of US intelligence. The French invited the Americans to assist with military intelligence, but thought the diplomatic side was out of bounds, where as the Americans wanted to be involved with both. They were accused of meddling. Example were Trinh Minh The, a Cao Dai defector in South Vietnam  or Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s brother. The French Surete  reported that a cell composed of a dozen Chinese and Vietnamese were in contact with the the US consul in Hanoi, and that the Chinese were given a radio transmitter.

Some French were suspicious of American involvement because of the incident with OSS Major Archimedes Patti’s mission in Hanoi. He had given weapons to the fledgling Viet Minh, proof to the French  that the US played both sides. General Salan in particular resented this, which hurt cooperation.

French Intelligence Org Chart

French Intelligence Org Chart CinC Level

Operational Examples

Credibility is the ultimate issue for intelligence organizations, and was also the case for the French in the First Indochina War. A recurring theme was for military operations to not trust military intelligence. Operations 3e Bureau sometimes blamed the 2e Bureau for its failures.

Such was the case in the RC4 (Route 4) disaster in 1950 along the Chinese border. This was when the French lost many of their border outposts. Some authors blamed the 2e Bureau for this, claiming that intelligence did not predict increases in Viet Minh forces. However, 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT began seeing changes in the quality of the Viet Minh army from the end of 1949.

In fact, The 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT had good information about the forces, including artillery. Particularly in the case of Pho Lu, it reported 5000 newly-armed main force units in the area. Yet, the  HQ of the ZOT decided to drop a parachute company of 3rd Battalion of Colonial Chasseurs-Paratroops (3rd BCCP) 20 kilometres from Pho Lu. They hoped the paras would be sufficient to safeguard the post and disperse the Viet Minh. After hours of marching in difficult mountainous terrain, the company was attacked by two Viet Minh battalions in full view of Pho Lu. In the unequal battle that followed, the French lost three men, including the commanding officer. They had to make a fighting withdrawal, under constant harassment. This failure cannot be blamed on intelligence.

The 2e Bureau EMIFT had some good HUMINT and COMINT in the early 1950s, and in fact intercepted several Viet Minh documents and speeches. In Intelligence Bulletin No. 3125 in 1950, the 2e Bureau provided a full translation of Truong Chinh's speech to the Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, of 21 January 1950. Truong Chinh's speech was entitled 'Execute the preparatory missions for passing in force at the general counter-offensive'. It was a guide to the Viet Minh's actions over the next few months, and provided insight into their mentality. Other captured documents  included 'Strategic Movements', by Dang Tri Dung of April 1950, and even the military report by Giap after the Congress for Commanders. It dealt with Viet Minh reorganization of forces, and gave 2e Bureau analysts much better insight.

Sometimes different agencies provided varying intelligence assessments. During the Hoang Hoa Tham offensive in the eastern Tonkin delta in March and April 1951, the Viet Minh launched a disinformation campaign. It leaked documents indicating a Viet Minh offensive in the north-west Delta. These were full of details about dispositions of units and their objectives. They seemed convincing to 2e Bureau EMIFT. The fake documents gave the impression the Viet Minh attack would be between Phuc Yen and Son Tay, on the west side of the Tonkin Delta.

Simultaneous to the disinformation campaign, the Viet Minh suppressed radio communication, and switched to telephone lines. This increased uncertainty of where the attack was coming from. But despite this, there were indications that the attack would be at Dong Trieu, which is considerably east of Phuc Yen. One was that roads linking Lang Son and Dong Trieu were being repaired.

But, three deserters from VM 174th Regiment claimed that the next offensive would be between Luc Nam and Uong Bi, on the eastern side of the Tonkin Delta, and east of Dong Trieu. The leaked documents and deserter's stories pointed to two different attack objectives. Between the deserters and the documents, General de Lattre and 2e Bureau EMIFT, heavily influenced by its SRO, were inclined to believe the documents. They believed in an attack between Phuc Yen and Son Tay.

However a different agency, 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT always maintained that the Viet Minh were targeting Dong Trieu, and not, as the documents indicated, Phuc Yen/Son Tay. But the SRO was convinced of the veracity of its single source, and that the 308th Division was moving west, not east.

Meanwhile, 2e Bureau  FTNV/ZOT continued to present a complete picture of what was about to happen. From the first week of March, it was quite clear where the new attack was at Dong Trieu. The Vietminh logistics build-up was closely and correctly identified. The roads from Kep to Cao Bang also became fully useable again in the first fortnight of March. Aerial reconnaissance provided much of that information. Intelligence reports of 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT on were based mainly on aerial intelligence and probably some SIGINT, and had many indications the Viet Minh were moving men and materials to Dong Trieu for its next offensive.

When the attack came a few days later, it was exactly where 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT predicted, at Dong Trieu. The 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT showed that as a multi-source intelligence analysis center, it could achieve accurate estimations of enemy intended actions, unlike the SRO, which made predictions based on a single source.

Dien Bien Phu is a ripe discussion topic for intelligence. Although there were many issues, both involving intelligence and some oblivious moves made by diplomats, the most obvious errors deal with estimates of Viet Minh artillery capability.

Unfortunately, the command at Dien Bien Phu did not trust their intelligence services. The experience of General Meyer reveals this state of mind. Indeed, as chief of SRO, he visited the Dien Bien Phu bowl in December 1953. After his tour of the entrenched camp, he proposed to Colonel de Castries to put himself at his service. At that, Castries replied: "The SRO is a useless and parasitic service."

And de Castries lack of confidence was justified. Although French intelligence estimates of Viet Minh artillery were in the ballpark, (48 105mm howitzers, a similar number of 75mm howitzers and 120mm mortars,) they were thought to be for the entire Indochina theatre. The artillery numbers for Dien Bien Phu were thought to be much lower. The 2e Bureau EMIFT also greatly underestimated the number of  37mm anti-aircraft guns at Dien Bien Phu. The VM had 36 of these which shut down the airfield, and greatly hampered French air capabilities. Ammunition estimates were also significantly low.

The real miscalculation was thinking the Viet Minh could not move all those guns over the long distance from the Chinese border on Route 13B to the Red River, and then along Route 41 to Dien Bien Phu. This distance was over 800 km. Also, the French artillery commander at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Charles Piroth, did not consider that the Viet Minh would place these guns in camouflaged bunkers on the hillside facing the entrenched camp. With this plan, the Viet Minh could use direct fire at their targets, greatly increasing accuracy, and eliminating target "bracketing" steps before "firing for effect."

Conclusion

All advantages of French weapons capability were of little use unless the C-in-C and his commanders had accurate knowledge of Viet Minh intentions, capabilities and dispositions. Despite severe difficulties, the French and Vietnamese intelligence organizations were able to provide most of this knowledge. Just as intelligence bureaus of other countries in other conflicts, the French faced their own internal crises, conflicts of interest, and turf fights over collection assets and information. Some experts criticize the lack of HUMINT on the Viet Minh and China. But one must ask, which country had good intelligence on China in 1950? The French had multi-source capability, and their reports were often correct, showing excellent capabilities at the strategic and operational levels.

References

"Nihil mirare, nihil contemptare, Omnia intelligere: Franco‐Vietnamese intelligence in Indochina, 1950–1954" Alexander Zervoudakis

"Hell in a Small Place," Bernard Fall

"French and American Intelligence Relations During the First Indochina War, 1950–54,"  Jean-Marc LePage, PhD, and Elie Tenenbaum

Pham Xuan An was born on Sept. 12, 1927, outside Saigon. In 1944, when he was 16, he became a courier for the Viet Minh, which was then fighting the Japanese. After 1954 he became an agent for the North Vietnamese Communist government, and infiltrated the South Vietnamese Army.

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

 

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