In Uncle Ho’s Hideout series, David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.
Can you guess what year the phrase “Ho Chi Minh Liaison Road” was coined? It was in 1947, during the First Indochina War. The trail had origins long before the Americans got involved, and became agonized by it.
Early Trail Background
During WWII and the First Indochina War, the Vietminh needed and developed a “backwoods” trail system and logistic network. Although primitive, it helped connect the northern and southern parts of Vietnam. Three-month journeys over the land routes were not uncommon. After the French defeat in 1954, and the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel, the trail became the main route for North Vietnamese (DRV) agents, (including Le Duan,) and communist-indoctrinated South Vietnamese “returnees” en route to South Vietnam.
To infiltrate men and supplies to South Vietnam, the DRV relied on the eastern sector of Laos contiguous to southern North Vietnam and northern South Vietnam. That is where the latticework of roads, trails, tracks, and waterways along the western slope of the Annamite Mountain chain. There were numerous valleys between rugged mountain passes with elevations of 1400 to 1700 meters. Roads generally followed valleys, and were often parallel to rivers, which served as alternate routes.
Although the trail was mostly in Laos, the communists called it the “Truong Son Strategic Supply Route” (Douong Truong Son,) after the Vietnamese name for the Annamite Mountain Range. This and the name “Ho Chi Minh Trail” were kept secret for a long as possible.
The trail areas in Laos consisted of jungle-covered mountains, some rising to about 2745 m in the north and 1525 m in the south. Tropical rain forests of mixed evergreens and deciduous trees are abundant. Other trees were second growth bamboo, wild banana, and scrub, and much of the ground is covered with tall tough grass called “tranh.”
Most of the rain falls between May and October. Overland travel is difficult and treacherous during this time. The dry season is the time when trails are firmer, and large scale movement is militarily feasible.
Until 1964, vehicles were confined to relatively poor roads, such as Routes 12 and 8 through the Mu Gia and Nape Passes respectively. Routes 23 and 9 led to Tchepone, or southern Laos via Route 23.
In May 1959, the Communist Party Central Committee’s 15th Congress agreed on a resolution to develop and expand the trail. President Ho Chi Minh officially assigned the task of “Special Military Missions” to open the Truong Son Road, providing supplies and support for the battlefield in South Vietnam. From this, an organization called Doan (Group) 559 was formed. The number comes from the month, May = 5, plus the year = 59 to get the identifying number.
Colonel Vo Bam began organizing Doan 559, with an initial staff of 500 cadres and soldiers. They decided to develop roads on the west side of the Annamite Range to have better protection from South Vietnamese attacks. In early June 1959, Group 559 organized survey teams to open the route to the south starting from Khe Ho. (7 km north of DMZ) Construction began, and by December 1961, gravel roads 5.5 m wide reached Route 9 at Muong Phin, Savannakhet Province. That year, Group 559 transported 5177 tons of weapons and equipment, and hauled 91 tons of rice. 7664 officers and soldiers moved through routes to battlefields, and 616 people from south to north. This was all done with maximum secrecy.
The terrain also necessitated a vast amount of bridging to span the numerous rivers, streams, and valleys. Enough roads were built by 1965, that heavy equipment and supplies were moved mostly by truck. Eventually, the engineering effort would make many of the routes all-weather, thus diminishing the seasonal nature of infiltration.
Doan 559 developed into a significant organization, similar to a military corps. Ultimately, it had general staff, political, transportation, and construction bureaus. There were 25 Binh Tram regiments, involved with operating the truck network. Doan 559 had 23 other military regiments under its direct control, including six engineer, six air defense, and others including two truck regiments, and two fuel supply regiments. There were three automotive repair workshops, and four field hospitals. The Binh Tram regiments also were supported by an infantry regiment, air defense battalion, separate engineer battalion, reconnaissance company, and a battalion of couriers.
Doan 559 Organization Chart
The network (for both vehicle and foot traffic) consisted of trails connected by a series of small rest-points, larger storage sites, and a few major base areas permanently manned. The network needed not only soldiers to operate the routes, but also personnel to feed and support the workers. The area around Tchepone was such a hub, and was listed as base area complex 604, one of the major locations for movement, storage, and other support activities.
One complex, typical of several others, was discovered by an American air cavalry unit, and dubbed the ‘City’. It had 182 storage bunkers each of 36 cubic meter capacity, 18 mess halls, a training area, and a small animal farm. It covered approximately three square kilometers, and the storage depot was capable of rapid receipt and issue of large quantities of supplies. From captured documents it was apparent that the ‘City’ had been in operation for at least two and a half years. The haul of weapons it yielded was enough to equip an NVA regiment.
The following key base areas were established:
There were five large Base Areas (BAs) in the panhandle of Laos (see map).
BA 604 was the main logistical center during the Vietnam War. From there, the coordination and distribution of men and supplies into South Vietnam and BAs further south was accomplished.
BA 611 facilitated transport from BA 604 to BA 609 and the supply convoys moving in either direction. It also fed fuel and ammunition to BA 607 and on into South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley.
BA 612 was used for support of the B-3 Front in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam.
BA 614, between Savannakhet, Laos and Kham Duc, South Vietnam was used primarily for transporting men and materiel into MR 2 and to the B-3 Front.
BA 609 was important due to a fine road network that made it possible to transport supplies during the rainy season.
The base areas housed numerous supply bunkers, storage areas, barracks, hospitals, and command and control facilities. These were concealed from aerial observation by an intricate system of natural and man-made camouflage that was constantly expanded and replaced. By 1973, trucks could drive the entire length of the trail without emerging from the canopy except to ford streams or cross them on crude bridges built beneath the water’s surface.
Base Areas on Truong Son
The trail network had primitive origins, but through the determined efforts of Doan 559, it became an effective supply network from which the war in South Vietnam could be executed.
I imagine Ho Chi Minh had much input on the trail management, because it was so very important strategically.
In Uncle Ho’s Hideout series, David Galster shares some of his tips and techniques in scenario research and design for CS: Vietnam.
Without the “Truong Son,” victory for the North Vietnamese would have been inconceivable. Of course, the Americans called it the “Ho Chi Minh Trail.” But, did they truly understand its importance? This series of articles hopes to reveal the monumental North Vietnamese effort to build, operate, and defend the Truong Son. American air counter-measures to interdict and hamper infiltration were also on a colossal scale. However, these failed to halt the flow of NVA troops, supplies, and equipment invading South Vietnam. In this series, you will find out why.
Origins of Truong Son
Since the Viet Minh 1954 victory, and subsequent division of Vietnam by the Geneva agreement, Ho Chi Minh still wanted to reunify North and South Vietnam. But, to overthrow South Vietnam, he realized that they needed a robust supply route. The Demilitarized Zone, (DMZ,) blocked north-south roads. South Vietnamese and American navies hampered efforts move supplies by sea. So, in 1959, Communist Party leaders planned a massive program to build and operate a road through Laos.
The epic undertaking would require over 100000 people to accomplish. Ultimately, 20000 km of roads and trails would be created. The trail network began at the North Vietnamese-Laotian border at Nape and Mu Gia passes. It extended along the west side of the Annamite range through Tchepone down to Saravan in southern Laos, and into Cambodia. And, in Cambodia, the Sihanouk trail continued down to the South Vietnamese border at Cochinchina, the region surrounding Saigon.
Trails ran through incredibly difficult terrain, numerous streams and rivers, thick jungles, and with major seasonal rains. But, the jungle canopy provided concealment. Initially, supplies were carried by porters, bicycles, and pack animals. Gradually, engineers built roads, 8 meters wide, for trucks, which in last years of the war, carried most of the supplies. In addition to roads, several pipelines were built to carry petroleum fuel and lubricants.
Construction and Truck Relays
Group (Doan) 559 was the organization that built and managed the trail. It had regiments called “Binh Trams” to manage truck transportation. Engineering and construction was handled by “Cong Binh” regiments. NVA forces also helped defend the trail, notably the Group 968, which later became the 968th Infantry Division. The “PPK” (Phao Binh Phong Khong) regiments provided air defense.
Thousands of workers were used to clear jungle, and carve roads along mountain sides. When American airstrikes cratered roads, they immediately worked to fill in the holes and smooth the surfaces. They also provided camouflage where needed.
Truck convoys ran at night between way stations spaced about 30 km apart. Drivers and trucks went back and forth only between two way stations, so they knew a particular trail segment very well. Convoys had about 100 trucks. At each way station, the supplies were unloaded and transferred to trucks in the next leg down the line.
US Interdiction Against Trail
Ambassador to Laos, William Sullivan represented US policy on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Direct confrontation of US forces in Laos with NVA was to be avoided. However, trail bombing and other covert interdiction methods were employed on a large scale.
Serious aerial reconnaissance began in 1964 with “Operation Yankee Team.” In northern areas, the US Navy RF-8A aircraft patrolled, while in the Laotian panhandle, US Air Force (USAF,) RF-101s made trail surveys. These were escorted with Navy F-8 fighters and Laotian T-28 fighter-bombers to retaliate if the recon planes were shot at. Photography provided location data for bombing campaigns.
Between 1965 and 1971, the US dropped over 1150000 tons of bombs on the Laotian trail network.
Operation Steel Tiger was a covert bombing campaign on the Ho Chi Minh trail. This began in 1964 and continued until 1968, when it was merged with Operation Tiger Hound and renamed Commando Hunt. The Tiger Hound area was much smaller and adjacent to the South Vietnamese border in the most southern part of Laos. These campaigns used B-52F Stratofortresses deployed in Andersen Air Force Base in Guam and U-Tapao in Thailand. Their involvement was code-named “Arc Light.” F-105 jets protected the B-52s against SAMs, and F-4s provided protection from flak and the potential threat of MIGs. Other trail strike aircraft included B-57s, F-4s, and A-7s.
Fixed wing gunships including the AC-47 (SPOOKY,) AC-119 (STINGER,) and AC-130 (SPECTRE) were used against ground targets. These were more effective, but were involved in a small fraction of total sorties. These missions were aided by Laotian roadwatch teams.
Truong Son Ground Combat
General Westmoreland was not satisfied with the effectiveness of Yankee Team, with concerns over anti-aircraft guns, and monsoon weather. He ordered ground surveillance. Local Laotians or Vietnamese, supplied with logistic support, would be used in Operation Leaping Lena. This involved parachuting radio-equipped teams into landing areas by unmarked VNAF-piloted aircraft.
Leaping Lena was unsuccessful because of North Vietnamese security patrols found and killed the incompetent teams. So, in 1965, a new plan, Operation Shining Brass called for US Special Forces, with USAF support to survey the trail. This program was much better.
Larger ground actions occurred in the early 1970s in the areas of Tchepone and Saravan. Operation Lam son 719 was a Republic of Vietnam Army (ARVN,) mission to disrupt a potential NVA offensive, and destroy trail infrastructure and supplies. The ARVN armor/infantry task force consisted of the 1st and 3rd Armored Brigades, 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions, plus the Airborne Division and 1st Ranger Group. Advancing west along Route 9, this effort failed when faced by NVA counterattacks of the 304th, 308th, 320th and 2nd Divisions. ARVN helicopter assaults faltered due to unexpected numbers of anti-aircraft guns. (NVA 367th Air Defense Division) Poor condition of Route 9 slowed advance, and hampered resupply. ARVN artillery range was inferior to the NVA’s 122mm and 130mm guns.
Saravan was a major city and crossroads within the trail network. Until 1970 however, the NVA was content to bypass it, and did not challenge the Royal Laotian Battalion (BV 41,) and its three attached armored-car platoons garrisoned there. But in late 1970, two NVA battalions attacked and captured the city. It became a Truong Son headquarters for Base Area 612. But in 1971, Laos retook it during Operation Sayasila. Later that year, at the beginning of the dry season, the NVA recaptured it. The 10th Rifle Battalion, of the 39th Regiment, 968th Division occupied it. Again in the fall of 1972, Laotian Military Region IV retook Saravan in Operation Black Lion using GMs 41 and 42.
NVA Air Defenses
Extensive anti-aircraft units were deployed along the trail. Doan 559 had six air defense regiments. The 367th Air Defense Division also protected the trail. Most of the weapons were employed at storage sites and base area complexes. One historical Vietnamese reference claims that 2455 aircraft were shot down along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Several anti-aircraft gun types were used. The DShK 12.7-mm machine gun was a very common. It was portable, and had an effective altitude range of 5000 ft (1500 m.) Another weapon was the ZPU series 14.5-mm machine guns. These towed units could be grouped in single, double, or quad mounts. (ZPU-1, ZPU-2, or ZPU-4) The ZU-23-2 was a 23-mm towed machine gun, with dual mounts.
The most widely used larger gun was the Type 55 37-mm machine cannon. It predominated in the air defense regiments. Its effective altitude range was up to 10000 ft (3000 m)
Larger guns such as the S-60 57mm and KS-19 100-mm machine cannons also saw trail service.
I imagine that Uncle Ho was quite proud of Vietnamese efforts to create and maintain the Truong Son.
I have been playing CS ever since the original East Front was released. At times, I would take a break from the game, mostly due to time commitments elsewhere, and have played other games but I have always returned to CS. I attribute my continued enjoyment of this long running game franchise to our community of gamers, the friendships among us that have developed over the years and the incredible number of scenarios covering everything from the Spanish Civil War, the Italians fighting in Ethiopia, the Pacific Theater and, of course, the carnage on the Russian Front.
Full credit must be given to all the scenario designers and I will embark on a series of Q&As with the designers I have derived countless hours of enjoyment by playing their games. I won’t be able to interview everyone and while I was absent from CS there has been a few designers such as Tanker Tony and Dan Caviness creating ambitious games. If designing scenarios were easy, I would have created a ton of them by now, so even if this Q&A series misses a few of your favorite scenario designers I would like to extend my appreciation to everyone that has spent the many hours creating scenarios, thereby strengthening our gaming community.
Interviews with the Masters: Huib Versloot
Huib Versloot (right)
1: How long have you been playing CS?
I have been playing CS since EF I came out somewhere in the nineties. Before that I used to play a game called Close Combat or something. I think it was a Microsoft game at that time but I’m not sure. Shortly thereafter I started playing Steel Panthers. In the beginning of CS I merely played without much thinking. I used to play by email against a Danish guy and lost all the time. Only later at the same time when I started designing scenarios my gameplay became much better and more serious.
2: What prompted you to start designing scenarios?
I did a few fictional things in the scenario editor for fun in the beginning, but a few years later I started to combine it with my other hobbies: WWII history and battlefield archaeology in particular. For years I would make annual trips with my elder brother to the Ardennes and explore what still could be seen and found on those former battlefields. We would usually prepare those trips by reading a particular book on a certain part of the battle in advance. In 2002 or 2003 we read the book The Battle of The Bulge in Luxembourg by Roland Gaul. After the battlefield visit to this southern flank of the Bulge, I tried to replicate the events I read in the book and the battlefield and landscape I had seen in the scenario and map editor of CS WF. At that time the first version of the later “Southern Shoulder” scenarios was born. I posted the scenario on “wargamer.com” and after a while I received some positive feedback from 2 gentlemen by the names of Jim Puff and Don Fox. They invited me to join a wargaming community called The Blitz and from there on the scenario designing became serious fun. Sadly, within one or two years Jim Puff suddenly passed away after a heart attack while at his work place I think it was.
Huib taking a walk in the Ardennes
3: What is the scenario(s) are you proudest of.
I don’t remember how many scenarios for CS I made anymore, quite a few I think and some in cooperation with other designers. Probably the best scenario I made as far as I’m concerned is “A Pivotal Day for the 82nd”. It deals with the 82nd Airborne Division combat around Nijmegen during Market Garden. For the Allied side of that history I used a book called “All American All the Way” by Phil Nordyke which is an excellent unit history. About the Germans in these events much less was known. Even if you have a book like “It Never Snows In September” it doesn’t give you all the detail needed about the German counterattack towards Nijmegen. Fortunately, I managed to get a hold of a very rare book by Heinz Bliss and Bernd Bosshammer called “Das Fallschirmjäger Lehr-Regiment” that is very detailed on what happened there from the German perspective.
While this scenario was my highlight I guess, after that I made some interesting scenarios and scenario plans. Unfortunately, they were never released or finished since after that at the CS legion we needed to concentrate on Middle East and the same time my spare time was dwindling as I moved to a more demanding position in my working life. So eventually I dropped out of the CS legion and transferred the things I had done for CS ME and Vietnam to Jason. CS WF stuff remained on the shelf and I might even have lost the files over time.
CS West Front Scenario by Huib Versloot
4: What is your process for scenario design? It must be difficult to try and recreate a historical event but also create an enjoyable scenario. How do you go about addressing this?
I don’t remember the precise process anymore as it has been a while. In the previous interview you had with Don, I think he described it well. You start by designing the map and you determine the scope. In the past I wrote a few documents about scenario designing and map making. I don’t know if they still exist somewhere but I would guess they still apply.
Making a good scenario is almost like writing a book to me. You have to make sure to get all the details right (at least I’m quite purist when it comes to the OOB etc.). I would always like to have both sides of the story. So normally I would want to have both Allied and German documentation. I read and write German as well so that makes it easier.
In most cases I would also combine with my other hobby, which is visiting the battlefield, but that is only nice and not necessary to deliver a good scenario. For enjoyability and balance some “feeling” is involved I think. For balance you can do a lot with victory conditions and points vs unit losses etc. I think I described that somewhere in one of those documents. I had a “system” that worked very well, but by now I have forgotten that “system” lol.
5: You mentioned that visiting a battlefield in not necessary to deliver a good scenario? Is this because of the nature of the period you are designing a scenario for (larger battlefields over wide areas as opposed to, for example, Waterloo) or the terrain has changed over time (urbanisation or regrowth of forests) or maybe personal inclination?
Indeed, it is not necessary, it is fun though. What is necessary is a good period topographical map, or knowledge of the terrain changes since the events in case you would use google earth to map for example. I used to use both; the topographical map to know what human structures and terrain type existed and google earth to know the terrain heights. I would then make a transparent hex overlay in google earth and by hovering the mouse over each hex I would know the height value of that hex.
6: Please tell me more about battlefield archaeology.
Every year I used to go to the Ardennes with my elder brother for a mid-week, to investigate a subject, (mostly a unit that participated in the battle of the Bulge or Hürtgen) that we had studied beforehand. The last years we were also joined by a friend of ours who has been a staff sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps. He was very skilled in using the metal detector and could identify almost any rusty object we dug up. On the last trip we dug up a piece of metal and it wasn’t even completely out of the soil and he said “It’s a Garand”, before I could even see it was a rifle.
As I said we would read /study and from what we read we would try to find evidence. For example, we read the book “Victory was beyond their grasp” about the German 272nd VG division and they had been in very close combat with the Americans on a slope just east of Kommerscheidt. We found cartridges of both sides mixed and hand grenades etc. It was evidence that had really been a fight of man to man as described in the source.
7: When I visited Holland a few years back and we were driving to the Airborne Museum Hartenstein you were telling me about another hobby. It is not game related but I think interesting in how you catalogue bird activity in a certain area over time. I’m not sure how but I think the same attention to detail and aspect of discovery and documentation required for bird watching would come in useful for game scenario design?
My other hobby is something that I actually already started when I was a child. It is bird watching. This hobby ended basically at the age when you get interested in “other birds” lol. When my dad gave him his camera with zoom lens a few years ago, it just started from there again. You never forgot what you learn at a young age so I could still identify a lot of bird species. The good thing is that just like battlefield archeology it is outdoors. In Holland quite a bit of statistical data is collected of birds and nature. So each year I count all the breeding birds in a patch of nature near Amsterdam, that has bit of forest, swamp and a lake so has many different species of birds. Very early in the morning is the best time walk your round to count the birds, as they are singing and you can identify them by their song, as that is much easier than by visual recognition. You enter the species in the app (with GPS coordinates) on your smartphone and send it over to SOVON (which is the institute that collects the data). Over the months that the birds are breeding (from March to July) you walk several rounds and software (each species has certain parameters) calculates how many individual territoria of each species are present. Modern technology is very helpful in this.
The sad thing is that since I was young there are now 50% less birds in Europe. Like in many areas, the rise of industrial agriculture has wiped out many wild plants, insects and ultimately the animals that eat insects: birds.
David Galster’s Bruno’s Bunker series of articles explain the evolution of the struggle in Indochina from a French and Viet-Minh perspective. Find out what happened prior the US involvement in Vietnam and how you can experience it while playing a range of upcoming CS Vietnam scenarios.
Mes compagnons d’armes,
Did you know what Chinese advice General Giap rejected? Well, unfortunately for the French, he rejected using the “Human Wave” tactic. Instead, Viet Minh dug trench approaches, to get troops closer to strongpoints, before their final assaults. This article is a primer on the battle of Dien Bien Phu. I hope it provides several interesting “points of departure,” that you might later encounter, or want to read about further.
Strategic Situation 1953 – 54
The Navarre plan called for strategic defensive in the north, offensive in the south.
However, General Giap understood the French “contradictions.” In fact, a copy of the Navarre Plan was given to Ho Chi Minh by the Chinese, who had gotten it from the Soviet KGB. The contradictions were in Giaps words: “. . .The contradiction between concentration of forces and occupation of territory; the contradiction between the buildup of a large-scale mobile force, and the scattering of his forces to various regions; between the strategic offensive and strategic defensive.”
Attempting to scatter French forces, the Viet Minh made diversionary thrusts into Laos. In April 1953, the 316th Division moved into Laos, overwhelmed the Sam Neua garrison, and pursued fleeing defenders towards the Plain of Jars. At the same time, the 148th Independent Regiment moved toward Luang Prabang, and advanced within a few kilometres, before French forces stabilised the defensive line. These actions forced the French to deploy Groupe Mobiles in reaction, and scattering their forces. It disrupted the Navarre Plan for 1953-54.
This forced the French into two options, either attack Viet Minh bases in the Tuyen Quang and Thai Nguyen “redoubt,” or place troops astride the Laos invasion route. Staying true to his credo: “Always keep the initiative,” and “always on the offensive,” Navarre chose to defend Laos.
In spite of entreaties by General Rene Cogny, able commander of the Red River Delta, Navarre insisted on the Laos option. Operation Castor would proceed. The idea was to make the upland stronghold an attractive bait for Giap to commit his elite divisions .
Colonel Christian de Castries, commander of Groupe d’Opération Nord-Ouest, (GONO) led Operation Castor, which began 20 November 1953 with an air drop of three parachute battalions in the Dien Bien Phu valley. This area was picked because of its strategic location along routes to Laos, and it seemed, to the French at least, to be a good defensive position. The valley was 16 kilometers long and 10 kilometers wide, and surrounded a ring of low, but rugged hills. The Japanese had built a good airfield there.
Operation Castor was never conceived as a “large-scale airborne raid.” From the start, the mission was to become a “meat-grinder,” using “base aero-terrestre” tactic that worked at Na San. The French hoped the main Communist battle force would venture far from the vital Red River Delta, while the French Command could concentrate remaining forces on mop-up operations in the delta.
“Fortress” Dien Bien Phu would ultimately be defended by 12000 men, including seven parachute battalions, three North African battalions, two Thai and one Vietnamese battalion. Combat support was comprised of an engineer battalion, truck company, ten light tanks, two 75-mm and 105-mm artillery groups, and four 155-mm howitzers. Concrete fortifications and strongpoints were constructed. These strongpoints were: Anne-Marie, (Ban Keo;) Beatrice, (Him Lam;) Claudine; Dominique; Eliane; Francoise; Gabrielle, (Doc Lap;) Huguette; and Isabelle, (Hong Cum.)
Logistics was one problem for the bastion. C-47 and C-119 planes had to supply at least 200 tons daily from Gia Lam and Cat Bi airbases, 300 km away. Reconnaissance planes and fighters of the permanent squadron constantly flew over the entire region strafing and bombing. But despite the logistics problem, Navarre asserted that with such powerful forces, and so strong a defence system, Dien Bien Phu was “an impregnable fortress…”
Faulty French Intelligence Estimates
Viet Minh available artillery was estimated by French intelligence to be 40 to 60 medium howitzers. But in reality, they had up to 350 guns including Soviet rocket launchers. And, French never thought these guns could be brought to the battle in large numbers, and sited in the hills surrounding Dien Bien Phu.
In addition, the French did not think that the Viet Minh could supply a force large enough to capture Dien Bien Phu. Even though they were soon surrounded, the French didn’t think it could become a formidable force. As General Giap wrote about Navarre: ” . . . His greater mistake was that with the conception of a “bourgeois” strategist, he could not visualize the immense possibilities of a people’s army, and the entire people who were fighting for independence and peace; it was still more difficult for him to realize the evolution and remarkable progresses of our people and our army, understand and appreciate the great possibilities of an indomitable fighting spirit of a people’s army which was determined to fight and to win.”
Since his spring 1953 attacks in northern Laos, Giap retained four divisions in the Thai highlands and the northern part of central Vietnam, equidistant between the Red River Delta and Luang Prabang. Throughout the 1953 rainy season, Giap successfully avoided engaging his main force, while Navarre vainly sought to disrupt the Communist timetable.
In December, Giap was ready. The 101st and 66th Regiments drove across the Annamite moun Thain chain. They pressed against French Groupe Mobile 2, (GM-2) which had been hurriedly sent out of Hue to meet the new threat.
Once more, Navarre had to disperse his already thinly stretched reserves. Along the tried pattern of Na San, the Plaine des Jarres, and Dien Bien Phu, another fortified airhead was hurriedly created around Seno, and a separate Middle Laos Operational Groupment ( GOML) activated on Christmas Day 1953. This involved three parachute battalions from the general reserve, part of GM-2, and all of GM-1. A few days later, GM-51, plus assorted air and supply components joined this force. They were concentrated 640 km away from major battlefronts of the Red River Delta, and Dien Bien Phu.
On 25 December 1953, the Communists reached the Thai border at Thakhek on the Mekong, the overland lifeline to northern Laos was severed, and Indochina cut in two. In the meantime, Viet Minh Regiment 66 cut across the moun Thains, and one by one crushed a smaller French post strung out along the road from Vietnam to Seno.
In northern Laos, situation became worse. The entire 316th Division took the airfield at Lai Chau, 88 km north of Dien Bien Phu, and then marched toward Luang Prabang. On 13 February 1954, Navarre airlifted another five battalions, including a parachute battalion, into Luang Prabang, thus further dispersing his forces.
Giap thus had succeeded in forcing Navarre to throw his painfully gathered mobile reserve into the four corners of Indochina in pursuit of a “single-battle decision,” that was definitely not the goals of the Navarre Plan.
If that wasn’t enough, Navarre launched the Atlante Plan on 20 January 1954 against Tuy Hoa, a stretch of coast in central Vietnam. The objective was to seek out Viet Minh forces in the highlands. They found no Viet Minh regulars, (who were diverted north,) and instead were harrassed by guerrillas.
Viet Minh Dien Bien Phu Offensive Preparations
From a cave complex near Tuan Giao, (50 km NE DBP,) General Giap conducted a series of meetings with Ho Chi Minh and his staff. The Chinese provided 70 advisors, the “South China Sea Action Group.” They suggested using one massive “Human Wave” attack to take Dien Bien Phu quickly. They based this on their successes in Korea. However, after due deliberations with his men, Gen Giap rejected this advice and decided on a siege campaign, to strike surely and advance cautiously. In his own words, “we strictly followed this fundamental principle of the conduct of a revolutionary war: strike to win, strike only when success is certain; if it is not, then don’t strike.”
The attack approach would not be one single human wave, but would be a siege campaign. In Giap’s words: “We no longer conceived the Dien Bien Phu campaign as a large-scale siege battle, which took place unremittingly in a short period of time, but a campaign in which a series of siege battles, having the character of positional warfare, were fought in a rather long time. In this campaign, we would have absolute superiority in number to destroy the enemy, sector by sector, till the fall of the entrenched camp.”
For the Dien Bien Phu campaign, Giap selected the following forces: 304th, 308th, 312th, and 316th Infantry Divisions, plus the 148th Independent Infantry Regiment. In addition, the 351st Heavy Division would play a critical role. This was an adaptation of a World War II Soviet organization and was comprised of one engineer, one heavy mortar, two artillery, one anti-aircraft artillery, and one Katyusha rocket regiments. Total Viet Minh combat troops were 49500.
There were two key challenges. First, how would they move all the artillery, and place them in the hills around Dien Bien Phu, in protected bunkers that could be concealed? Second, how would they supply these forces with no good roads from their bases in central and southern Tonkin?
The answer was that the Viet Minh would mobilize countryside peasants. They built two roads, one from Phu Tho is 225 km away, and the other to Thanh Hoa is 340 km away. Thousands of workers, called Dan Cong, were conscripted to build these roads.
But, they also had to get the people to haul the supplies. Tens of thousands of pack-bicycles and wheelbarrows, thousands of craft, convoys of donkeys and horses were employed to transport supplies to the front, using roads and tracks, deep rivers and swift streams. Much of the travel took place at night, to avoid airstrikes. An estimated 15000 personnel were involved in an effort that became the prototype for the Ho Chi Minh trail in later years.
Finally, they moved the artillery pieces up the steep jungle roads, and set them into concealed bunkers, that had to be cut into the sides of the hills. These crews sometimes disassembled the cannons, hauled them in place in pieces, and then reassembled them in the final positions.
The other significant planning was air defense. The 367th Air Defense Regiment, part of the 351st Division, had about twenty-four M1939 37-mm anti-aircraft guns. These were placed in various locations to harass French resupply transports.
Gun Porters moving artillery into place at Dien Bien Phu
Beatrice fell first. On 13 March 1954 a fierce artillery barrage hit the command post killing Legionnaire commander Major Paul Pegot. The 312th Division launched a massive infantry assault, using sappers to clear obstacles. French resistance collapsed shortly after midnight. 500 Legionnaires were killed. Viet Minh losses were 600 dead and 1200 wounded. A morning counterattack was stalled by Viet Minh artillery.
The direct artillery fire surprised the French. Each gun crew did its own spotting. Indirect fire requires experienced well-trained crews, which the Viet Minh lacked. The French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth was so distraught at ineffective counter-battery fire, that he committed suicide.
Gabrielle was next. Viet Minh resumed a pounding artillery fire, which permanently disabled the landing strip. Further supplies had to be parachuted in. At night, 14 March,
Two Viet Minh infantry regiments attacked the elite Algerian defenders. The next morning, an artillery shell hit headquarters, severely wounding commander and staff.
General de Castries ordered a counterattack to relieve Gabrielle. But the Vietnamese battalion, that had just jumped in the day before, was exhausted and ineffective. Artillery fire decimated them. The Algerian battalion abandoned Gabrielle.
Anne-Marie was abandoned by Thai troops, demoralized on seeing losses of Beatrice and Gabrielle. Propaganda leaflets had been distributed to them for weeks, telling them it was “not their fight.” Thus on 17 March, the first phase of Viet Minh attacks was succesfully completed.
A lull until 30 March gave the Viet Minh time to “tighten the noose” around the central zone of strongpoints: Hugette, Dominique, Claudine, and Eliane. They also cut off Isabelle, the extreme southern strongpoint. During this time, the Viet Minh made trenching and sapping approaches to get their assault troops closer to the strongpoints.
A French “crisis-of-command” emerged, as senior officers realized that de Castries was incompetent to conduct the defense. After Anne-Marie fell, de Castries isolated himself in his bunker, essentially abdicating command. The incompetence was also apparent to General Cogny at Hanoi. On 17 March, he flew to Dien Bien Phu, but his plane was driven off by anti-aircraft fire. He considered parachuting in, but was talked out of it.
Colonel Langlais confronted de Castries, and informed him he was taking control of the situation, and de Castries could handle messages to Hanoi and offer advice. From accounts, it appears de Castries accepted this arrangement. Langlais and Marcel Bigeard, (our dear Bruno,) maintained good terms with de Castries.
Dien Bien Phu showing Strongpoints
Phase II saw assaults on Dominque and Eliane. On 30 March, the 312th Division captured Dominique 1 and 2. The final strongpoint between the Viet Minh and the main headquarters in Claudine was Dominque 3.
Eliane 1, defended by Mooccans, was captured at midnight. Eliane 2 was under heavy attack. Langlais ordered a counterattack on Dominque 2 and Eliane 1, by “anyone left trustworthy to fight.” They were successful at retaking those on 31 March. But, the Viet Minh renewed their assault, forcing the French back.
At dark on 31 March, Langlais ordered Major Marcel Bigeard, who was leading the defense at Eliane, to fall back across the river. Bigeard refused, saying “As long as I have one man alive I won’t let go of Eliane 4. Otherwise, Dien Bien Phu is done for.”
The night of the 31st, the 316th Division attacked Eliane 2. Just as it appeared the French were about to be overrun, French tanks arrived, pushing the Viet Minh back. Smaller attacks on Eliane 4 were also pushed back.
Fighting back and forth continued for several nights. Attempts to reinforce the garrison by parachute had to be done with lone planes to avoid AA fire. Although some reinforcements arrived, they did not replace the growing casualties.
Giap decided to revert to trench warfare after fighter-bombers and artillery devastated a Viet Minh regiment, caught in open ground. On 10 April, the French tried to retake Eliane 1. The attack, planned by Marcel Bigeard, came after a massive artillery barrage. The strongpoint changed hands several times, but by morning was in French control.
Another stalemate period from 15 April to 1 May occurred due to lowered Viet Minh morale. Intercepted radio messages revealed to the French that whole Viet Minh units refused to attack. Prisoners said they were told to “advance or be shot.” To avert this crisis, Giap called in reinforcements from Laos.
Hugette 1 and 6 had been almost entirely surrounded by entrenchments. The Hugette 1 garrison attacked to cut through to supply water to Hugette 6. But with heavy casualties, Langlais decided to abandon Hugette 6. The Viet Minh continued isolation attacks against Hugette 1, and it fell 22 April.
Viet Minh assaults resumed on 1 May. A massed assault against the exhausted defenders overran Eliane 1, Dominique 3, and Hugette 5. This attack was accompanied for the first time with Katyusha rockets. On 6 May, the Viet Minh blew up a tunnel under Eliane 2, and within a few hours overran that outpost.
General Giap ordered a general attack on all remaining units. The last French radio transmission to Hanoi was: “The enemy has overran us.”
A White Flag
On May 7, 1954, the struggle for Indochina was almost over for France. As a French colonel surveyed the battlefield from a slit trench near his command post, a small white flag, probably a handkerchief, appeared on top of a rifle hardly 30 meters away from him, followed by the pith-helmeted head of a Viet Minh soldier.
“You’re not going to shoot anymore?” asked the Viet Minh in French.
“No, I’m not going to shoot anymore,” replied the colonel.
“C’est fini?” asked the Viet Minh.
“Oui, c’est fini,” replied the colonel.
And all around them, as on some gruesome Judgment Day, soldiers, French and Viet Minh alike, began to crawl out of their trenches, and stand erect for the first time in 54 days, as firing ceased everywhere. The sudden silence was deafening.
The Viet Minh counted 11721 prisoners, but 4436 were wounded. The able bodied ones were marched over 600 km into prison camps. Hundreds died along the way. Only 3290 were repatriated, four months later.
This loss was a severe blow to French prestige, and resulted in France agreeing to withdraw from Indochina, by the Geneva agreement.
“Dien Bien Phu,” General Vo Nguyen Giap
“Battle of Dien Bien Phu,” Wikipedia
“Revolutionary War Vol. 5,” Bernard Fall, Major J.W. Woodmansee
‘Indochina The Last Year of the War,” Bernard Fall
“Battle of Dien Bien Phu,” Rohit Singh
“Dien Bien Phu,” Pierre Langlais
Fate of Bruno
Major Marcel Bigeard survived Dien Bien Phu, only to be taken prisoner. But, his extraordinary physical condition and mental toughness enabled him to survive the four months of captivity.
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