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,
Which battle gave the French the most confidence about the Navarre Plan? It was the “hedgehog” tactic at Na San that caused large Viet Minh losses. It encouraged Navarre to repeat this, and “seek a major battle.” This article explains the battles, leaders, and strategies characterizing the second phase of the French Indochina War. But first, there is a little political matter to get “out ot the way.”
The Bao Dai Plan
French leaders were concerned about Viet Minh popularity, and wanted to inaugurate a regime with popular Vietnamese support. They thought a government led by Emperor Bao Dai would have strong appeal, and help politically against the Viet Minh.
Bao Dai had been Emperor since 1925. He abdicated in 1945 when the Viet Minh assumed power in Hanoi. A number of Vietnamese nationalists were willing to work with Bao Dai to create a new central government. The nationalist groups VNQDD, Dong Minh Hoi, Cao Dai, and the Hoa Hao were interested. Their hope for success was that Vietnam would become unified and independent.
High Commissioner Emile Bollaert sought the return of Bao Dai, and planned offers to the Viet Minh for a cease fire, and French recognition of Vietnamese independence within the French Union. But, in mid-1947 he was quickly recalled to Paris, and the Cabinet voiced their opposition to anything profiting Ho Chi Minh. Especially, they opposed the word “independence.”
Bollaert then offered these essential (paraphrased) terms: Indochinese people agree to remain in French Union. French allow qualified government to take over, with French control over certain functions as foreign relations and French Union military coordination. Collaboration on customs, currency, and immigration was required.
Predictably, Ho Chi Minh rejected these terms. And, the tentative agreement did not measure up to the expectation of Bao Dai’s supporters in Hong Kong and Vietnam. They wanted assurances of independence and unity. The French still wanted Bao Dai to come back, and head the Vietnamese government, but in the interim, they appointed General Nguyen Van Xuan, Provisional Cochinchina President to form a government.
After further negotiations, Bollaert and Bao Dai came to a compromise agreement, known as the “D’Along Bay Agreement.” It was ratified by the French National Assembly in August 1948, but “only in principle.” Georges Bidault, Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that the concessions granted by M. Bollaert were “very dangerous” in view of probable repercussions in French North Africa. He rejected the word “independence.”
Finally, in March 1949 Bao Dai and President Auriol reached a compromise agreement at Elysee Palace in Paris. The “Elysee Agreement” recognized Vietnamese independence within the French Union. Foreign relations had to meet French Union approval. A national army would be created, and French forces in peacetime confined to designated locations. The French would provide advisors. Certain guarantees of property, free enterprise, and education were agreed to.
The French people were not supportive, as expressed by Ex-Premier Ramadier in March 1949: “We will hold on everywhere, in Indochina as in Madagascar. Our empire will not be taken away from us, because we represent might and also right.”
Bao Dai assumed the position of Chief of State in Saigon on 14 Jun, 1949. Under the agreements, he appointed a Consultative National Council as an interim legislature. The plan was to later replace this with an elected Constituent Assembly. The Council did not meet until September 1952, and the elected Assembly never convened.
As a result, the Bao Dai government was perceived as authoritarian, and was considered as a French “puppet” government. Delays in making agreements further undermined confidence. The Bao Dai plan did not accomplish the political goals of France in Indochina.
Viet Minh Offensives, 1951
With the fall of border forts and Cao Bang in late 1950, the French had lost control of Tonkin north of the Red River, and by 1 January, 1951 they desperately dug in to hold the Red River delta. The Viet Minh were encouraged to go on the offensive.
General Giap was aware of the situation of French morale at home, and American hesitation to commit troops in a colonial war. Giap wanted to liquidate the French military threat before massive American material aid arrived. Infantry divisions were being formed, including a heavy “Russian style” one, Artillery-Engineer Division 351, with two artillery regiments, and engineer regiment, and air defense battalion.
The Viet Minh tried to keep units ethnically homogeneous. The 308th Division, “Capital Division” recruited mainly in Hanoi, while the 316th was largely of Tho tribal origin, and the 335th consisted of Thai.
The Viet Minh army had evolved into three mission echelons: Main force (chu-luc,) regional units (dia-phong quan,) and local militia (du-kich.) The only truly mobile force was the chu-luc, likely to appear almost anywhere, from the Chinese border to Cambodia. Troops could cover vast distances on foot, carrying full battle gear. Exceeding French estimates of speed, some chu-luc units went 40 km per day, through jungle. The local militia were used for reconnaissance, sabotage, and covering main force withdrawals.
The Viet Minh made three major attacks in 1951: Battles Vinh-Yen, Mao-Khe, and Day River. The typical pattern of these battles began with two or more Viet Minh divisions surprising a lightly-defended outpost. But, the French would quickly deploy one or more Groupe Mobiles to restore the position. Once the Viet Minh troops were stalled in engagement, French artillery, airstrikes, and napalm would decimate them. These battles were less than conclusive victories for the French. And, they gave General Giap an opportunity to find Viet Minh limitations and French weaknesses.
Every effort by General Giap to break the De Lattre Line failed. Each time, Viet Minh attacks were answered by French counter-attacks that destroyed his forces. Viet Minh casualties rose alarmingly during this period, leading some to question the leadership of the Communist government, even within the party. However, any benefit this may have been for France was negated by increasing domestic French opposition to the war.
The De Lattre Line
The De Lattre Line, named after General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, was a line of concrete fortifications, obstacles, and weapons installations constructed by the French around the Red River Delta in northern Vietnam. This came as a response to the successful Viet Minh Border Campaign. The fortifications guarded essential communication between Hanoi and Haiphong, and to provide security for densely populated and economically important Delta areas.
1200 separate concrete blockhouses, able to withstand 155mm artillery, were grouped in clusters of 3-6 blockhouses for mutual fire support. The line spanned 378 km. Each blockhouse (or bunker,) could hold a minimum of 10 men. In addition, a defensive redoubt was constructed around a 35 km radius from the port of Haiphong, ensuring safety from artillery. Defensive lines were connected by roads capable of bearing 30-ton tanks. Construction commenced in late 1950 and completed by the end of 1951.
With General de Lattre’s reforms, the French had 228 positional pieces, and 240 field pieces in Indochina. Except for a single battery of 155-mm guns in Tonkin, these were mostly 105 mm howitzers. The positional artillery was spread, usually in two-weapon batteries, along the de Lattre Line, and at similar posts in the other commands. Typically, they were spread so they would be mutually supporting.
Blockhouse on de Lattre Line
General de Lattre provided inspired leadership, and managed to defeat ambitious Viet Minh attempts to attack the Tonkin Delta. He regrouped his forces along the de Lattre Line, organized mobile groups of regimental size, and employed artillery and air support to defeat exposed Viet Minh. Indigenous personnel, were put to use. By the end of the 1951 campaign season, the French could realistically consider the prospect of future offensive actions.
Assuming command on 17 December 1950, he undertook several measures which none of his predecessors dared: He mobilized the French civilians living in Indochina for additional guard duties, and reassigned garrison troops for active field combat. He sent back ships to France that were designated to evacuate French women and children. As he said, “As long as the women and children are here, the men won’t dare to let go.”
The Groupe Mobile, a regimental combat team organized to operate independently, existed both as a mobile infantry unit, (GM) armored unit, (GB) and even as airborne (GAP) versions. However, the appearance of Viet Minh divisions compelled the French to operate in larger GM formations later in 1953-54, and light divisions when the war ended.
In November 1951, the French went on the offensive to extend their perimeter. With a parachute drop, they seized Hoa Bình, 40 km west of the De Lattre Line. This operation bogged down with a series of Viet Minh counterattacks, and became a “meatgrinder.” This engagement continued into 1952. The beloved General de Lattre contracted cancer, returned to France, and died 11 January 1952.
Acknowledging the skill the Viet Minh had in fighting behind the lines, de Lattre decided to turn these tactics against them. Anti-Communist guerrillas were implanted deep in Viet Minh territory.
Major Roger Trinquier was selected to lead this brand-new service, because he had led the 1st Colonial Parachute Battalion in combat on the Plain of Reeds. Additionally, Trinquier had previously commanded an outpost at Chi Ma in a remote Chinese-Tonkin border region, fighting Chinese pirates and opium smugglers. He quickly learned how to rely on native help, and learned mountain dialects.
The new unit was called “Groupements de Commandos Mixte Aeroportes.” (GCMA) This organization recruited, deployed, and coordinated behind-the-lines commando teams all over Indochina. By 1953, 20000 men were under Trinquier’s command, which is a very large command for a Major. Trinquier developed counterinsurgency theory, and wrote a book, “Modern Warfare.”
American Support for CEFEO
The beginning of the Korean War in June 1950 came as a surprise to American leaders, and heralded a new aggressiveness of the Communist bloc. The war in Indochina was clearly part of a broader Cold War struggle. When he sent ground troops to South Korea, President Truman also ordered an acceleration of the aid program for the French in Indochina.
This program was the Mutual Defense Assistance Program. (MDAP) Aid for Indochina for 1950 was $31million. On 30 June eight C-47s loaded with spare parts arrived in Saigon. A French aircraft carrier was scheduled to take on forty F6F aircraft in California in September, while another French ship was expected to depart the United States with eighteen LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle, personnel), six LSSLs (support landing ship, large) and other mixed cargo.
This was only a start. In 1951 MDAP provided $133 million, and in 1952, $171.1 million. Approximately 21,300 tons/month of military supplies were shipped, not counting aircraft and vessels delivered on their own power. In fiscal year 1953, American expenditures were $400 million in support of the Navarre Plan.
The French embassy requested a loan of an aircraft carrier in the same CVL class as the Lafayette, and Arromanches. In September, the USS Belleau Wood was transferred to French authorities in San Francisco. In addition, the US loaned six C-119 transport aircraft, called “Flying Boxcars,” with spare parts and maintenance crews. They were flown initially by civilian contract pilots. French airmen replaced them after training.
Na San and Operation Lorraine
When the “meat grinder” at Hoa Bình was over, the action settled down. Raids, skirmishes and guerrilla attacks, but through most of 1952, both sides withdrew, particularly in the rainy season, preparing for larger operations.
The November 1952 Battle of Na San was the first use of French “hedgehog” tactics. General Raoul Salan thought that well-defended outposts, resupplied by air would invite Viet Minh attack, forcing them into conventional attacks. Could the “base aero-terrestre” be sustained, far from the Red River delta? Na San was the test.
In early October, Salan began fortifying the Na San outpost and airstrip. It was supplied via C-47 Dakotas flying from Hanoi, and a garrison placed there. But, General Giap avoided Na San, instead launching attacks along the Black River valley, and Nghia Lo.
The Viet Minh controlled most of Tonkin beyond the de Lattre line. The situation was critical for the French, and Salan chose an “indirect approach,” and embarked on Operation Lorraine, to attack Viet Minh supply depots at Phu Yen. On 29 October, 30000 French troops moved from the De Lattre line. Phu Thọ fell 5 November, and Phu Doan 9 November, by parachute drop, and finally Phu Yen on 13 November.
At first, Giap did not react. He wanted to wait until their supply lines were overextended, and then cut them off. Salan correctly guessed Viet Minh intentions, and cancelled the operation on 14 November. The only major fighting came during the withdrawal, when Viet Minh ambushed the French column at Chan Muong.
French losses were 1200 men during the operation, most during the Chan Muong ambush. Operation Lorraine was partially successful, proving that the French could strike out at targets outside the De Lattre Line. However, it failed to divert the Viet Minh offensive, or damage their supply system.
In late November, General Giap reversed his previous avoidance of Na San, and planned an attack using the 308th Division and the independent 88th Regiment. The attack began on 23 November. With ten dug-in French infantry battalions, plus artillery and close air support, Colonel Gilles’ forces shattered two regiments of the 308th Division. After 7000 casualties, General Giap withdrew on 2 December.
The Navarre Plan
Lieutenant-General Henri Navarre took command in May 1953 with great promise. As a self-reliant individualist, his cold and aloof manner harmonized with his military career. He had served in WWI, but spent much of his career in staff assignments, particularly in intelligence work. In WWII, he signed on with the Vichy Army, but used the position to aid the Allies, including reporting German sea movements to the British. His only large command was the 5th French Armored Division in occupied Germany.
Navarre’s instructions were to defend Laos if possible, but to safeguard the CEFEO at all costs. He intended to continue de Lattre’s tactics, but to intensify them with infusion of new spirit, mobility, and aggressiveness in French forces. The Navarre Plan provided for freeing CEFEO entirely from static defense missions, replacing them with Vietnamese. He envisioned 21 “land-air bases” setup in Viet Minh territory. Those troops were to execute offensive operations from them to compel the enemy to assign troops for rear-area defense. Full implementation was to come by 1955.
Because of the Na San success, General Navarre was seemingly impressed by, but not completely enamored with, the fortified base concept. The tactic seemed to work, but it was not the exact technique Navarre wanted. He sought to merge a more offensive attitude with the base aero-terrestre tactic. Navarre called hedgehogs “a mediocre solution, but one which, on examination, appeared to be the only one possible.”
The Navarre Plan for 1953-54 had the following goals: 1) Divide Indochina into separate theatres, one north, the other south. 2) Assume defensive in north. 3) Increase forces. (12 infantry battalions) 4) Create a pacification program in the Tonkin Delta. 5) Launch offensives in the south. 6) Create and train a Vietnamese National Army. 7) Form several mobile divisions by fall 1954. And, 8) Seek a major decisive battle.
The last goal, “seek a major decisive battle” became a very important, as the people of France were losing patience, and wanted the war in Indochina resolved.
I imagine that Bruno was satisfied with the “base aero-terrestre” tactic. After all, aren’t paratroopers trained to fight, surrounded by the enemy?
General Marcel Bigeard – “Bruno”