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,
Now is time to “passer aux choses serieuses,” or get down to “brass tacks,” and talk about some very serious battles. This article covers the massive Battle of Five Hills, in which a large CSVN scenario is devoted. And, despite a time delay of ten days, we also discuss Bruno’s plan to recapture Eliane 1. Naturally, a CSVN scenario nicely depicts this operation.
Situation on 29 March
The successful western flak foray, led by Bruno, influenced Langlais. Instinctively, he felt that French forces in the western lowland areas had adequate strength. These included the several strongpoints of Claudine, Francois, and Huguette. Further, he felt that the next Communist attacks would be on the East sector hills.
Langlais concern was in the East sector strongpoints of Dominque and Eliane. Holding these hills were crucial to keeping Viet Minh heavy weapons out of range of the complex’s center.
In opening phase of the siege, these were defended as follows: Dominique had two Algerian companies of the 3/3 RTA, plus the 3rd Company of BT2, (T’ai.) Eliane was defended by the Moroccans of 1/4 RTM under Major Nicolas. Addtionally, the 4/11/4 RAC battery of 105-mm howitzers was positioned at D3 by the river, commanded by Lt. Paul Brunbrouck.
As can be seen, all infantry was either African or T’ai. Although most thought the Algerian and Morrocan units were solid, no one knew whether the T’ai of 2BT were dependable. After all, 3BT abandoned Anne-Marie without even a skirmish. The Moroccans were not impressed by the Algerians, either. This suspicion was evidenced by the loss of an Algerian battalion at Gabrielle. Langlais seemed to share this view.
Reinforcement of Dominque and Eliane
The strongpoint Dominque 4 on the west bank was renamed Epervier and the 8BPC stationed there under Major Tourret. He was reinforced with quad-fifty AA platoon.
At Eliane 4, two companies of the 5BPVN were sent to reinforce the 1/4 RTM. The 4th Company of 5BPVN was sent to D1 relieve a 3/3 RTA company.
On a subsequent inspection of E2, Langlais decided to reinforce the 2nd Company 1/4 RTM with a company of paratroopers from 1BEP under Capt. Nicod.
E2 and E4 faced Mont “Fictif” or “Phony Mountain” as it was called. This is because earlier, the French put fake fortifications there for deception. The other hill facing E2 was Mont “Chauve”, or rather “Bald Mountain,” because it was in “no man’s land,” and had become barren from innumerable barrages.
Rats of the Nam Youn
A problem plaguing the French command was the large number of deserters and forcibly disarmed T’ai mountaineers to be cared for. Eventually, they also had upwards of 2200 Communist prisoners. In addition, on 20 March de Castries ordered T’ai expelled from the villages in the valley.
Included in this mix were two mobile field brothels, one consisting of Algerian girls from the Ouland Nail tribe, and the other Vietnamese.
All of these ended up in a dirty camp on the west bank of the Nam Youn river, not far from the Command Post. They hid in this lair, “like land crabs,” according to Langlais, coming out for a pittance, at the slightest sound. At night, they slithered out of their holes to steal parachuted rations, with which they organized a profitable trade, a food black market.
However, a certain group of these known as P.I.M. (Prisonniers Internes Militaires = POW’s,) served the French troops as laborers, or “coolies.” These men were not captured with weapons in hand. Rather, they were caught destroying trails, or erred in forbidden areas, or were suspects.
According to Langlais, “We’d shave in front of a mirror, showered with water of the nearby river that was brought to us, strung on bamboos, by the P.I.M . . .” Some of the P.I.Ms developed loyalties and friendships with French troops. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, one French prisoner, marching off to the POW camp, bumped into one of his former P.I.M.’s. Shortly thereafter, he reached into his pocket, and found a pack of cigarettes, that; at great risk, had been slipped in it.
Battle of Five Hills
The Viet Minh artillery barrage began 1700 on 30 March, as French commanders expected. “Incoming” was reported on the Dominques, Elianes, and the HQ areas. Assault waves of Viet Minh from the 312 and 316 Division charged through barbed wire and up the slopes of the strongpoints.
The Viet Minh regiments believed to be present were the 209 and 165 Regiments of the 312 Division, the 98th and 174th of the 316 Division, and were reinforced by the 102 Regiment of the 308 Division. Regiment 209 attacked D1, while Regiment 165 attacked D2. On the Elianes, Regiment 98 assaulted E1, and Regiments 174 and 102 faced off against E2.
Early in the battle, perhaps at 1900, D2 fell to the Viet Minh, with Algerians under Capt. Garandeau breaking completely and running away. It was in this situation that the
4/11/4 RAC artillery battery on D3 made thier “mark.” As waves of Communist infantry surged on the “heels” of the Algerians, the artillerymen could easily see the attackers against flaming outlines of Dominque 1 and 2. Lt. Paul Brunbrouck gave the order:
“- Canonniers a vos pieces ! Debouchez a zero !” The guns lowered to zero elevation.
With 105s pointed directly at the enemy, the gallant African gunners in open pits fired volley after volley at point blank range. And then, a lucky phenomenon occurred: The 312 Division riflemen were too close for their own artillery support.
The assault waves faltered, and began to fall back from the horrendous fire. Suddenly, quad-fifties of Epervier started shooting. Seeking protection in the valley behind nearby D6, fleeing Viet Minh ran into a minefield, that had been laid only a few days earlier. 200 were killed there.
On 31 March, the French counterattacked. 8BPC retook D2, which was held for a day and lost again. 6BPC and 5BPVN regained E4 and E1 temporarily. Elements of 1BEP and 1/4 RTM plus some tanks recaptured E2.
Scenario Description DBP#6 Battle of Five Hills
[Dien Bien Phu][H2H][HIS][CSL]
The French command believed the 28 March FlaK raid proved their strength in the west sector lowlands. As a result, they predicted the next Communist offensive would be the hill positions of the east sector, Dominque and Eliane. They abandoned the isolated strongpoint strategy, and instead adopted large centers of interconnected resistance.
There was no longer a separation of Dominque and Eliane, and all strongpoints were interconnected, with trenches, barbed wire, and mines. The Viet Minh issued a new field manual for attacking fortified positions, calling for an overall manpower superiority of three-to-one, and firepower of five-to-one.
The opening of the first breach must penetrate into the fortification interior, and hold to the “bitter end,” relying on successive assault waves to overrun the defenses. The French East Sector commander toured the defenses, and decided to reinforce Dominque 1 with the 4th company of the 5th Vietnamese Parachute Battalion. (5BPVN) The rest of this battalion would reinforce the 1/4 Moroccan Rifles on Eliane 4 and behind them he placed the 6th Colonial Parachute Battalion. (6BPC)
A new strongpoint, at D4 called Epervier (Sparrowhawk,) was formed on the west bank of the Nam Yum with the 8th Assault Battalion. (8BPC) And a company of engineers was brought in to form D11, on the east bank of the Nam Yum behind E4. In late afternoon, the Vietnamese 4th company moved into position, bunched up in communications trenches and collecting theiir equipment and other paraphernalia. Murderous Communist artillery fire began to land on the Dominques, Elianes, and headquarters areas. Assault waves of two Viet Minh Divisions, the 312 and 316, appeared and rapidly blasted their way through the barbed wire and mine fields.
The battle of the five hills raged through the night. Eliane 1 and Dominque 2 were in Viet Minh hands by midnight. But the French organized a counterattack. 8 BPC attacked D2. 6BPC attacked E1, and Legionnaire paratroopers of 1BEP attacked E2. Although the counterattack on D2 succeeded, losses were high and 8BPC had to pull back. But as of the end of March 31, the French had at least regained E1 and E2.
[CSEE][NO VAROBJ][ALL: NO VV]
Map of Five Hills Battle
Bruno Grabs Eliane 1
On 6 April, the next battle initiative was not planned by General Giap, but rather the unwavering Major Marcel Bigeard, or Bruno. As the garrison had survived the Battle of Five Hills, and held on to at least part of the Huguettes, General Cogny agreed to drop in another parachute battalion. Assured of reinforcements, Bruno decided to retake Eliane 1. It would remain in French hands until 2 May, only a few days before the end.
With E1 in Viet hands since 1 April, the nearby positions were not defensible. No Frenchman could move on E4 without risking sniper fire. Living like cavemen, the men of 6BPC and 5BPVN were harrassed by rifle fire and grenades day and night.
Gen. Cogny suggested a choice of two replacement battalions: 2nd BEP under Major Hubert Liesenfelt, or the 1st Vietnamese Parachute battalion. (1BPVN) Although Langlais preferred the Legionnaire paratroopers, the decision was rumored to be settled by the two battalion commanders drawing lots. Liesenfelt won.
Headquarters, 7th, and 8th Companies of 2BEP parachuted in under monsoon rains on the night of 9 April. They were assigned to D3, as reserves.
Scenario Description DBP#9 BRUNO Grabs Eliane 1
[Dien Bien Phu][H2H[HIS[CSL]
The dawn of April 10 witnessed the French assault on Eliane 1 exactly as planned by BRUNO. To direct the attack on E1, a big hole was dug slope facing E1, into which a half-dozen radio sets were installed, each within reach. There BRUNO huddled for the next ten hours, directing the whole battle by radio transmitters as though the forces were musical instruments.
Contrary to doctrine, BRUNO used commando tactics. Infantry was committed in small units advancing rapidly, leaving enemy pockets to be mopped up by the second or third wave. The advantage was that the Vietminh were unable to organize defensive fires because friendly and enemy troops were intermingled.
At 0550, 81mm and 120mm mortars opened fire. Subsequently, all twenty remaining French 105s fired, delivering 1800 rounds in ten minutes. Rolling barrages preceded infantry waves. When the artillery lifted, the four remaining tanks joined in with the quad fifties from Epervier.
At 0610 paratroopers of 2nd Company, 6BPC began climbing the steep slopes of Eliane 1, under smoke cover, while dive bombers from Navy Squadron 3-F of carrier Arromanches began working over the enemy positions to the rear of Eliane and Dominique. They sealed off the battlefield completely.
The Vietminh boxed in the French rear with a counterbarrage. Second company was pinned on the western slope of E1. BRUNO then committed first company along with a flame-thrower team and an automatic rifle team.
The new company cleared the enemy 120-mm mortar barrage, with heavy losses. But, the flamethrower team got through, and the western bunker of Eliane 1 disappeared in a flash of flame, followed by a black cloud, and the smell of charred human flesh.
At 1400 the French paratroopers were on top of E1, looking down on the east slope in direction of Phony Mountain. Helldivers from French Navy Squadron 3-F were finishing off remnants of the Vietminh battalion that had held the hill. At 1500, a radio transmission went to the Dien Bien Phu command post: “Le garcs Pierre, this is BRUNO, mission accomplished.”
The two companies had hardly had time to become acquainted with what was left of the position when an enemy counterattack began at 1845. It was preceded by a violent artillery barrage.
The Communist command was willing to pay the price for E1: a full Vietminh regiment, the 98th Infantry of the 316th Division was involved from the beginning. French defenders were now in an impossible situation. Although fully equipped with automatic weapons, they were incapable of mowing down the onrushing waves fast enough.
BRUNO watched the agony from Eliane 4, and decided to make a stand for it. Frantic radio calls went out to the counter attack companies, organized on a stand-by basis by all the paratroop battalions.
1BEP was the first to respond. It sent two small companies of fifty men each into the blazing furnace atop E1. Simultaneously, the Vietminh threw a fourth infantry battalion into the battle.
Then something strange happened. This rarely occurred before in Indochina. As Legionnaires and paratroopers stormed across the low saddle between E4 and E1, they began to sing.
Some songs were translations of German Army ones, like “Kepi Blanc,” [“Panzerlied”] and now, as they stormed forward, German Legionnaires sung in their deep Teutonic accents, while others hummed in French.
For a moment, there was a brief lull, the Vietminh attempted to understand the strange new sound. And then, the firefight atop Eliane 1 resumed. BRUNO decided to throw in the last available reserves: 2nd and 3rd Companies, 5th Vietnamese Paratroops.
Unflinchingly, the Vietnamese paratroopers began the climb. They, too, began to sing the only French song they had learned as schoolboys, the “Marseillaise.”
By midnight, remnants of Foreign Legion and Vietnamese Paratroopers had again cleared E1 in hand-to-hand fighting. The Viet-Minh began to fall back, stunned.
[CSEE][NO: VAROBJ][ALL: NO VV]
Screenshot for opening of DBP#9 BRUNO Grabs Eliane 1