Vietnam Notebook: First Indochina War, Early Years (1946-1950)

Tomb of Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Viet Nam ...

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French Efforts at Reconquest,

The French Return 1946:

World War II ended abruptly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In short order, the victorious Allies sent occupational armies to Vietnam to fill the vacuum created by the sudden fall of the Japanese. Their mission was to disarm and evacuate Japanese troops and facilitate the transition to peace-time governance. In Cochinchina the British assumed responsibility for removing the defeated Japanese soldiers. Tonkin was awarded to Chiang Kai-shek. At the time, the flames of insurrection and gang warfare were already burning across Southeast Asia. In Burma, Indonesia and Malaysia indigenous uprisings were breaking out everywhere. The British were increasingly worried that the contagion for self-determination would spread to their colonial crown jewel, India. In Vietnam they believed that by helping France regain her former colony they might stop the hemorrhaging and turn the tide back in their favor. As it turned out, they were mistaken. The hand-writing was on the wall for colonialism. Interestingly, the British occupational force was comprised of a large number of Indian troops. They quickly freed many of the French citizens held in Japanese prisons and supplied  advance French troops that had parachuted in to the countryside and walked to Saigon in the wake of the war. Together they put down a lightning bid for power mounted by the Vietminh in Saigon, with the help of captured Japanese troops temporarily re-armed by the Brits to put down the natives. The British eventually exited the scene, leaving the French in power. A bitter guerrilla war ensued between the Vietminh and French in Cochinchina that continued until 1954.

In Tonkin, Chiang Kai-shek was awarded the task of removing the Japanese. His troops spilled across Vietnam’s northern border and commenced to ravaging the land. Ho Chi Minh’s newly established government in Hanoi was still not recognized by anyone outside of Vietnam, leaving him in an extremely delicate position. Then, in a treaty concluded in February 1946, France cut a deal with Chiang: France gave up all of its colonial possessions in China; in return the Chinese turned over Tonkin to the French. The French calculated that, rather than try to fight their way back, which would have entailed battling a wide-spread armed resistance, it made better sense to recognize Ho Chi Minh on the condition that he allow French troops to be stationed in Tonkin. That is precisely what took place. For his part, Ho Chi Minh felt he had no choice but to deal with the French. He knew it was his only chance to rid his people of the hated Chinese, their age-old rivals. In response to his predicament Ho is reported to have said “The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.” The Franco-Vietnamese agreement concluded between Ho Chi Minh and the French on March 6, 1946, stipulated that 15,000 French troops and 10,000 Vietnamese under French command would be stationed in and around Hanoi and Haiphong.

The reaction by the locals to the French power play was mixed at first. Naturally most Vietnamese were against the return of the French, but there was a small minority, mostly elites, who actually welcomed them. Some were favorably disposed toward the French primarily for economic or political reasons. Most however, like the rice farmers in the Red and Mekong deltas, just wanted to be left alone to rebuild their lives after years of chaos. Sadly, the vicissitudes of world politics intervened with violent consequences for the Vietnamese people.

In November and December 1946, after months of tense standoff characterized by repeated French failure to honor the spirit of their agreement, fighting broke out in Haiphong and Hanoi. This signaled the vanishing point for any chance of a peaceful solution. With the onset of the war millions who had previously been on the fence were suddenly forced to take a side– the vast majority lined-up against the French.

Historian Joseph Buttinger describes the scene:

“A French attempt on November 20, 1946, to take away, unilaterally, customs control from the the Hanoi regime led to a major clash between French and Vietnamese troops in Haiphong. The French military decided to use this incident “to teach the Vietnamese a lesson.” When the Vietnamese failed to comply with an ultimatum requesting that their troops evacuate Haiphong, the French attacked on November 23, killing, by their own admission, at least 6,000 civilians in a naval bombardment of the city’s Vietnamese quarters.”

“When they (the French) demanded that the Vietminh militia at Hanoi be disarmed, Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues realized that they had to choose between armed resistance and capitulation. They decided to fight. Their attempt, on December 19, 1946, to overwhelm the French troops at Hanoi is commonly regarded as the beginning of the First Indochina War. In reality, the war merely spread at this time over the whole of Vietnam, since it had started fifteen months earlier in the South, on September 23, 1945, the day the French ousted the Vietnamese authorities in Saigon.” – Joseph Buttinger. A Dragon Defiant.

The political situation at the outset of the war:

In Paris, the French desperately wanted to regain lost prestige by recovering former colonies. They had already put down an insurrection in Algeria that had erupted at a town called Setif in 1945. Now they were fighting and negotiating their way back to power in Vietnam. In practical terms, the colony was not a cure-all for French ills. In fact colonies could be economically viable only in combination with a strong domestic economy, rarely were colonies a cause of economic growth in the home country. Nevertheless, French officials realized the need for something to distract the French people from the wreckage of WWII all around them. Many in higher governmental and military circles felt strongly that the French Army desperately needed a showplace victory to erase the bitter memories of 1940.

That is not to say that there wasn’t controversy over the policy. Millions of French citizens wanted nothing to do with spending more blood and treasure to regain ownership over other peoples’ land. But they were in the opposition. The official policy was set back in January 1944, when Free French politicians and high-ranking colonial officials met in Brazzaville, capital of French Equatorial Africa. At issue was the level of political balance between the native populations, the colonial administrators and Paris. The result of the debate was a fairly liberal policy that strove to increase indigenous rights and autonomy, but only to a point. The Brazzaville Conference recommended political, social, and economic reforms: semi-autonomous assemblies would be established in each colony; citizens of France’s colonies would share equal rights with French citizens; citizens of French colonies would have the right to vote for the French parliament; the native population would be employed in public service positions within the colonies; economic reforms would be made to diminish the exploitative nature of the relationship between France and its colonies. However, the possibility of complete independence was soundly rejected. As de Gaulle stated: “the aims of France’s civilizing mission preclude any thought of autonomy or any possibility of development outside the French empire. Self-government must be rejected – even in the more distant future.”

Ho Chi Minh and his fellow communists were also in it for the long haul. They didn’t advertise their communism, preferring the term nationalists instead, but in the inner circle the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao were always present. The strategy they used was called dau tranh, literally translated as struggle. But that is not all of it– there is an element opportunism too. In fact, success in the art of dau tranh was all about learning when and how to exploit mistakes and weaknesses when they presented themselves. It was a two-pronged approach, political and military.

The French eventually played the emperor card, resurrecting Bao Dai, again. He was a puppet, again. The French had no intention of giving any real autonomy or independence to the Vietnamese. This turned out to be a serious miscalculation. The French missed their best remaining chance to hold on to the colony by neglecting to court Vietnamese Nationalist political elites who were most likely to break from the Communists. They failed to see that their fortunes rested with the political parties and not with Bao Dai. The failure to recognize this had fatal consequences for many– the leaders of the various nationalist and royalist parties who might have provided friendly leadership, and maybe strong opposition to the Vietminh, would largely succumb to Ho’s masterful execution of the popular front strategy. During the early war years many were either co-opted, or eliminated, by the Vietminh. French Historian Philippe Devillers:

“According to its own understanding, the greatest danger, a crucial and perhaps moral peril, lay in the resurgence of the non-communist nationalist movements. From that moment all the Vietminh’s energies were bent to one end: to eliminate, discredit, and terrorize its possible rivals. By propaganda, by threats and by acts of terror, the Vietminh also seeks to paralyze all who would leave the “Democratic” Front or play an independent game. Adversaries who could not be reached, guerrilla units that rebelled against the Central Committee’s orders, have even been denounced to the French police as dangerous Vietminh, and the French authorities have taken over the task of eliminating them. As for the method of discrediting its opponents, that is one of the arms of propaganda in which the Vietminh is particularly adept. The fact that the anti-Marxist or non-Communist forces appear in the zones occupied by French forces is easily exploited by the Vietminh which can make it appear that its rivals are the tools of the French.” – Philippe Devillers. Vietnam and France.

One wonders how differently things might have turned out for the French had they moved early to consolidate a friendly bloc with some of these parties? We will never know.

Further reading on this important period in Vietnamese history: Ellen Hammer. The Struggle for Indochina; Robert Shaplen. The Lost Revolution; Stein Tonneson. Vietnam 1946.

The military balance at the outset of the war:

With the outbreak of hostilities in December 1946, the Vietminh quickly lost ground militarily; they simply didn’t have the troops, the training, or the equipment to stand up to the French. Crucially though, they were flexible. This would save them. They could melt into the surroundings with relative ease. In battle, they learned from their mistakes over time. They became  masters at exploiting strategic opportunities presented by their enemies’ hubris and miscalculations, but at this early stage in 1946 they were willing to join with any allies they could find who were willing to help them fight the French—Catholics, Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, and nationalists.

In the early days of the war the Vietminh resorted to guerrilla warfare, which puts the ambush front and center. When planning an ambush terrain was always foremost in their minds. Forests, mountains, and jungles are prime venues for the surprise attack, particularly where the enemy has to move along a limited number of roads, passes, and rivers. With the advantage of knowing the turf the ambusher has the upper hand; he can better predict when and where the enemy will have to move and set an ambush there, frequently at a time of his own choosing. Tactically, that advantage, which was held by the Vietminh throughout the war, prompted the colonial army to travel in overwhelming numbers (making them sitting ducks), depleting resources and tying down troops that could be used elsewhere; the French also deemed it necessary to construct garrisons at all the best ambush spots (exposing poorly protected troops to regular attacks while leaving the guerrillas in control of most of the best ambush spots). Those were not good odds, even with the major advantages in firepower and mobility held by the French at first. In this type of warfare the lumbering giant surrenders the initiative.

In combat, the French had much better tactical communications: for a start they had tactical radios, which the Vietminh generally didn’t.  In their defensive positions the French could also use field telephones to connect bunkers and artillery positions. Meanwhile, the Vietminh had to use runners and couriers. Radio communications were limited to large formations, generally regimental headquarters and above, and the Vietminh had to improvise a means of encrypting their radio messages in the rare event they had them. The French were reasonably successful in breaking lower level Vietminh cyphers. The lack of communications made the Vietminh tactics rather rigid—everything had to be planned in detail well in advance and there was little opportunity for changing things in the heat of battle. This is a common theme in communist military history; it hurt the communists in Korea, where several crucial battles, seemingly won, were sacrificed because improvisation was illegal and communications were slow. In Vietnam, even with all the success the communists would have, they were plagued throughout the years by this tactical deficiency, in places like the Day River, Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, and An Loc.

The French had the total advantage in the skies. The Vietminh had no air support and—at least initially—virtually no anti-aircraft defenses beyond small arms, rifles and machine guns, not very effective above a couple thousand feet. French airlift capability was a tiny fraction of what the Americans would enjoy later, and they had almost no helicopters, but they could transport supplies and troops by air and the Vietminh could not. That made the French reserves vastly more effective; they could get them where they were needed relatively quickly.

In addition, the French had water mobility. They had river gunboats, mostly modified World War II surplus American landing craft, and a small naval presence off the coast. They could move troop and supplies by water and deny the use of major waterways to the Vietminh. The Vietminh could smuggle rice and men by water; there were too many minor canals and streams and so many sampans that the French couldn’t stop every one, but the Vietminh didn’t have any kind of riverine assault capacity.

French fortunes on the roads of Vietnam changed for the worse as the war progressed. Early on the French had a big advantage in firepower and security, they had armored vehicles—armored cars and light tanks—while the Vietminh had only rifles and machine guns. Being excellent guerrillas the Vietminh learned to make and deploy deadly mines, and they began to regularly capture bazookas and recoilless rifles from defeated colonial troops. Those weapons could take out light armor and wreaked havoc in firefights. Most French vehicles were road bound. This would cost them dearly over the war years. Even so, the French had reasonable strategic mobility; they could shift troops by road within territory they controlled, and their infantry was well-trained and foot-mobile. The Vietminh on the other hand initially had a hodgepodge of light weapons, but they were constantly improving. By the end of the decade the Chinese Communists provided major material assistance upon reaching the Vietnamese border in 1949. Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union also lent material assistance to Ho Chi Minh’s rebellion.

The French also started the war with a big advantage in artillery, helping them win most of the early battles. Eventually though, the Vietminh largely overcame the imbalance, mostly through the acquisition of US artillery pieces taken from Chiang Kai-shek‘s Chinese Nationalists by Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Civil War and then transferred to the Vietminh. The Vietminh became expert marksmen when it came to artillery; they didn’t have unlimited artillery, so they had to be efficient, and they were remarkably successful in bringing what they had to bear at the critical point in battles.  By contrast, most of the French guns were spread around the country supporting static outposts and garrisons, thus diffusing  firepower and hindering mobility.

One more important element of the situation should be mentioned. Intelligence was a major Vietminh advantage. In addition to operating on foreign turf, the French were also posed with the quandary of trying to discern the difference between combatants and non-combatants. In fact, the Vietminh guerrilla usually didn’t look much different from the peasant; in fact, he, or she, likely was a peasant!  In Mao Tse Tung’s famous dictum guerrillas are “fish swimming in the sea”, with the “sea” being the local population. The Vietminh did exactly that. They generally enjoyed the sympathies of the peasants. Vietminh strategy built on this advantage by keeping guerrillas in local areas to execute dau tranh. This allowed for the construction a long-term intelligence network and the establishment of a nearly inexhaustible supply of young soldiers to fight for the cause.

That’s not to say that the Vietminh were always welcomed, there was opposition out there, and even though land redistribution policies were very popular, some villagers rejected communism. In such cases, the Vietminh were not above resorting to intimidation. Whether through cooperation or intimidation, the Vietminh enjoyed ever increasing cover in the countryside. This allowed them to slowly encircle the cities and spread terror using ambush and assassination. But that would come later.

1947: The French Strike First – Operation Lea and the T’ai Hill Offensive:

As mentioned earlier, the French did have some initial successes in battle. The Vietminh were not the only ones who could stage surprise lightning attacks. Labeled a “mop up” operation by the French, Operation Lea was launched in Fall 1947 against what appeared to be a wounded and retreating Vietminh. The military objective was to cut the head off the serpent and the targets were none other than Ho, Giap, and the Vietminh leadership.

The French Commander-In-Chief, General Jean Etienne Valluy,  assembled a force of 15,000 men, including airborne, riverine and armored forces. He had a daring plan. The French had good intelligence. They were confident that they had the location of Ho and his headquarters. It seems that Ho and his men may have been operating too openly near the small village of Bac Kan north of Hanoi in the Bac Viet. They were too brazen for their own good as it turned out.

The plan: paratroops would be dropped right on top of Ho’s headquarters. Next, a mainly-Moroccan mechanized and armored column, three tank battalions, three artillery battalions, three infantry battalions and a combat engineer battalion, would jump off from the French base of Lang Son just north of Hanoi, then drive all the way north along Route Colonial 4 to Cao Bang, and then drive southwest down RC 3 to link up with the paras.  Then a riverine force carrying two battalions of infantry and supplies would jump off from the upper Red River and head up the Clear River, the Red River’s major tributary to the north, to rendezvous with the paratroops.

When the paratroops dropped in on Ho’s base in early October, some 1,200 of them, they missed capturing the leadership by a matter of hours. The rebel leaders had fled so quickly that field desks were left strewn with tactical documents, some with the ink on the signatures still wet. For those who traffic in “what if” history this close call should stand out. Unfortunately for the French close didn’t do them much good. Their fortunes in Vietnam were doomed at that moment, they just hadn’t realized it yet, that would take nearly seven years and tens of thousands of dead. Here again the Vietminh had superior intelligence, receiving just enough warning from agents so that Ho, Giap and their staffs were able to slip away into the jungle.

From deep in the Bac Viet jungles the Vietminh forces reorganized and then counterattacked. They surrounded the paras who were forced to fight on their own for nine days until a Moroccan relief force arrived. The Vietminh couldn’t break the paras but the paras didn’t hurt the Vietminh forces either, and the Vietminh troops were more easily replaced. As the Moroccans drove south from Cao Bang to save the paras, they had to fight their way through repeated ambushes by Vietminh regiments. After a tough slog they finally arrived to relieve the elite paras, who were promptly evacuated.

Eventually, a riverine column arrived on the Clear River due west of Bac Kan to rendezvous with the Moroccans. In the face of the combined French forces after the linkup, rather than fight, the Vietminh just melted away into the jungle. It’s true that the French had inflicted losses on Vietminh forces, and they had captured significant stores of supplies and weapons, but the Vietminh were still a viable, and growing, fighting force. And even though the French did liberate some 200 prisoners of war taken by the Vietminh the previous winter, that was nice, but far short of the stated objective of the missions.

Meanwhile, with Operation LEA playing out to the east, the French also mounted an operation into the T’ai hill tribe territory. Using two T’ai partisan battalions, the French swept the entire northwestern part of Tonkin, everything west of the Red River, with the aim of clearing out resistance from some minor hill tribes and dissident T’ai clans who had sided with the Vietminh. The French action was largely successful. With the numbers then in their favor the French tactic was to encouraged the T’ai villagers to form pro-French guerrilla units. Most of the T’ai happily did so, they had had an antagonistic coexistence with the native Vietnamese for many years, and perhaps for their own protection they were willing to join the French colonists against the Vietminh The French historically were masters of the policy of divide-and-rule and here we see them at it again. It worked for a time. It also illuminated one of the Vietminh’s big weaknesses: they could be evicted from areas where the population didn’t like them, which the T’ai didn’t. This changed over time as the Vietminh grew in strength and authority but in early 1948 the French had the advantage in the highlands of northwestern Tonkin. Strangely, they did little to exploit it.

The Vietnamese Response:

Ho and Giap still had plenty of troops to conduct Mao’s Phase Two warfare effectively, so they opted for a strategy of ambushing the French by launching hit-and-run raids, particularly along the road connecting the outpost line along the Chinese border, Route Colonial 4 (RC4). RC 4 runs through some of the most forbiddingly difficult terrain in the world, there are rugged mountains featuring sheer karst ridges covered with jungle. The road itself winds its way through magnificently beautiful country, but the beauty hid a darker scene, the jagged mountains and ridges provided secure hiding places, and the tall grass and dense jungles were ideal for ambushes!

The Vietminh strategy was dau tranh pure and simple and the comrades stayed on the offensive: if it wasn’t military attacks, of which there were plenty, the Vietminh kept up constant political pressure, and they were getting increasing of support in northern Vietnam. They continued to construct a robust guerrilla infrastructure, they increased the size of their Main Force units, and they fought French pacification operations by repeatedly attacking isolated outposts and exposing French vulnerabilities. Throughout 1948 and into 1949 the war simmered, it was guerrilla war and it was everywhere. But nowhere was it more intense than along the RC 4 outpost line where there was constant terror and bloodletting.

1949 – 1950, The Changing Fortunes of War:

In Tonkin in the autumn of 1948 the French were firmly in control of the Red River Delta. In the cities at least they had reduced the guerrilla presence sufficiently enough to move around relatively securely. They controlled the territory adjacent to Rout Colonial 1 (running north/south between Hanoi and the Chinese border) as far as Lang Son, where they had a vitally important military outpost. Early on the French were able to supply the posts in Northern Tonkin, including the outermost base at Cao Bang, by truck convoy. That luxury would not last. Toward the end of the dry monsoon season, in February 1949, Vietminh ambushes intensified forcing the French, reluctantly, to abandoned some of their minor outposts. In a defensive maneuver French officers pulled back their garrisons, marching them back to bigger forts at Thatkhe, Dongkhe and Cao Bang. Increasingly, the French were forced to supply those outposts by air.

Ho and the the Vietminh leadership never wavered on policy. The overarching goal remained constant: expel the French and bring Vietnam together under Communist leadership. The Vietnamese Communist leadership kept their eye firmly on the ball, from Haiphong in 1946 to the fall of Saigon in 1975. it was an unbelievable accomplishment! Dau tranh was their mission statement. Every move the Politburo took was intended to strengthen their position in either the political or armed struggle—or both.  If they eliminated class enemies, they purified the masses and increased the political will of the leadership. If they won a battle, they not only moved the struggle ahead militarily, they also won political support. After all, in the fight for the support of the villagers, security was paramount. Those who demonstrated that they could protect the people usually had the allegiance of those people.

The Vietminh strategy did require great patience however; if they suffered a military defeat the experience was quickly analyzed to determine what went wrong and what to do differently next time. There was also usually an exercise required where officers admitted mistakes and made self effacing confessions called autocriticism. All of this was done in the spirit of profiting from previous mistakes. Organizationally, to ensure discipline even at the lowest command levels the Communists installed a cellular structure along the lines of that made famous by Mao and his people in China. All units were divisible into their smallest components, groups of three. That built loyalty to the Party, but the cell was also there to make sure that you didn’t deviate from the official task. By picking the number three men were organized such that each kept an eye on the other two and one never knew who might be a spy in his midst.

The French Command in 1949 – 1950:

The French theater commanders were Brigadier General Charles Marie Chanson in Cochinchina and Major General Marcel Alessandri in Tonkin. Both men pursued counterinsurgency strategies with varying levels of success. In October 1949, Paris appointed a new Commander In Chief, his name was Lieutenant General Maurice Carpentier. This respected officer had a distinguished combat record from World War I. He had also served as chief of staff to the two outstanding senior French commanders of World War II: General Alphonse Juin who had commanded Free French forces in Italy, and General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who ended the war commanding the entire Free French Army.

Carpentier proved to be inadequate for the task. He was basically a staff officer who had little real command experience, not a seasoned decision-maker under pressure. What’s more, he had zero experience in Asia. Recognizing his own shortcomings Carpentier early on ceded wide autonomy to Chanson and Alessandri to prosecute the war however they saw fit in their respective areas of authority. They both chose to pursue an aggressive clear and hold pacification strategy. But Carpentier grew cautious and restrictive as time went on, in doing so he missed important military opportunities, he just couldn’t bring himself to pull the trigger under pressure until it was too late.

Events in Cochinchina 1949 – 1950:

By 1949, Chanson’s version of Allesandri’s methods had produced arguably better results for him in Cochinchina. By cutting deals with the religious sects and local political elites, sometimes through the use of intimidation, the French had made gains with the locals by providing better security in the rice-growing areas. At this moment the sway of Vietminh influence was diminishing. That was a big problem for them. Southern Vietnam produces much more surplus rice than does the North, without access to it the Vietminh would have an increasingly difficult time keeping their own population satisfied, and it would be next to impossible to gain a majority of support in the South. So they were reeling in Cochinchina, and like in the North, they desperately needed something to change their fortunes. That something turned out to be the victory of the Chinese Communists over Chiang Kai-shek in 1949. Their arrival on the borders of Korea and Vietnam changed the global balance of power, thus ratcheting up political tensions in a newly atomic world. The consequences for millions of people in the following decades would be grave.

In 1949 the Vietminh leadership had entrusted command in the South to a man named Nguyen Binh. He was an anti-French nationalist who had organized his own private army of several battalions in the aftermath of the fall of the Japanese and the return of the French in 1945-46. Nguyen Binh fought against the French in those early years basically as a warlord. Some early success led the Vietminh to offer him Nguyen overall command of Communist forces in the South. They had few if any viable alternatives. He was not sophisticated politically, he was after all a rogue, but after being  severely wounded he was converted to Communism by the nurse who cared for him. still he was not pure, properly educated, Communist in the eyes of his superiors, so the cadre of leaders in Hanoi never really trusted him.

By the summer of 1950, Chanson had effectively stabilized the South for the French. He let the peasants grow and market their rice, and many even turned a small profit. Pacification seemed to be a success. For the Vietminh, something drastic had to be done, and it had to happen soon or else all might be lost in the South. In response Ho Chi Minh and his cabinet called on Nguyen Binh to launch a major offensive in August, right at the peak of the wet monsoon.

Nguyen Binh executed his orders. The results were devastating for his Communist forces. The attacks launched simultaneously throughout the South were a disaster. Nguyen Binh’s untested troops were utterly defeated across the board. In some ways, the Vietminh in Cochinchina never fully recovered. Yes they did rebound to a certain extent, their remnants fought the French, and grew into the Vietcong, but this early defeat had long-term ramifications, it influenced Communist strategic and tactical decision-making for the next twenty five years.

Meanwhile back in Saigon another story was unfolding. Running parallel to the aforementioned events, in the months before the failed August 1950 offensive, the Vietminh had launched a campaign of terror and assassination in Saigon known as the “Time of the Grenades” which had been successful in striking fear in the hearts of the “Vietnamese Excellencies” as author Lucien Bodard described them.

The primary reason for the demise of Nguyen Binh’s fortunes in Saigon was the appointment of a ruthless police commander as head of the Vietnamese Surete named Nguyen Van Tam.  He was called the “Tiger of  Cailay.” He was also called the Executioner.  Using terror and intelligence he managed to suppress the terrorist campaign and eventually secure Saigon from Nguyen Binh’s terror cells. Lucien Bodard, in his excellent treatment of the period The Quicksand War,  describes events:

“This was the man who had hitherto been scorned and reviled by the whole of bourgeois Saigon as the “Tiger of Cailay,” the “Executioner.” “It was Tam who was to win the battle of Saigon in a few weeks, and with ridiculous ease. He destroyed all Nguyen Binh’s networks, those organizations the French had struggled against so furiously for so many years; and the work was so well done that the Vietminh never really won a foothold Saigon again. But to accomplish this Tam used the traditional methods of Asia; and they are so cheerfully horrible that they are hard to describe.” — Lucien Bodard. The Quicksand War.

Historian Philip B. Davidson picks it from there:

“But to Ho and Giap, the now-discredited Binh still had some sacrificial value as a strategic distraction. At the monsoon’s end he could still attack throughout Cochinchina to pin the French troops there while Giap launched his own offensive against northern border posts. In August-September 1950, as Giap made his final preparations to reduce the border posts, Nguyen Binh launched an all-out attack in the South. Unable to match the French in open warfare, Binh’s offensive quickly faltered. His army and the Communist apparatus were cut into pieces and driven deep into the Plain of Reeds, almost into Cambodia, This misdirected offensive in the South cost the Communist forces dearly. It eventually cost Nguyen Binh his life.” – Philip B. Davidson. Vietnam At War.

In 1951 Nguyen Binh would be eliminated, death coming quickly in a Cambodian jungle. He had been summoned to Hanoi. Giap knew he was quite ill and would likely succumb in the jungle along the way. And just to make sure he did Le Duan sent two of his soldiers to escort Binh back. How Binh actually died has been debated, some say he was forced to commit suicide, others claim he was executed by Le Duan’s officers, one thing is not in doubt though, the order that doomed him came from Hanoi.

Events in Tonkin 1949 – 1950:

In the North, Alessandri had systematically expanded the area of French control. By using clear and hold tactics he was able to stabilize the Red River Delta for a time, and in the process he gained control of the main source of rice and people in northern Vietnam. The importance of controlling the rice supply is obvious but Alessandri also wanted to control the populated areas so that he could deny the Vietminh recruits. The  French pacification campaign was putting pressure on Ho’s forces and, when combined with Chanson’s success down south in controlling the rice-growing regions of the lower Mekong, the Vietminh were actually going hungry. The flow of rice from south to north had effectively stopped and the communists adopted a slogan “A grain of rice is worth a drop of blood” that indicated just how serious the problem was. The only major rice-growing area under Vietminh control was the Than Hoa region just south of the Red River Delta, and it was not a producer of large rice surpluses.

Clearly the French were making progress by the summer of 1950, but the situation was changing around them: Vietnam was no longer so isolated from the world. Crucially, back in December 1949, the Chinese Communists chased Chiang Kai-Shek and his army out of China. Consequently the Vietminh had direct contact with Communist allies, and could get supplies, weapons, and training that had previously been denied them. That would greatly change the character of the war in the North.

Alessandri was anxious to capitalize on his successes. In his mind, with the Chinese Communists on the border, time was running out. To that end, he drew up a bold plan to end the war in a single blow. It called for the commitment of every mobile French battalion in a simultaneous assault on every major Vietminh base area. No reserves. Strategically, the plan was driven by Alessandri’s awareness that the Vietminh were on their heels. His data revealed the success of his pacification operations in the Red River delta and he understood that the moment was ripe for action; something had to be done to cripple the Vietminh before they could retreat to their new bases and training areas inside China. Operationally, the plan was driven by his keen appreciation of the Vietminh ability to deploy swiftly to repel French attacks. Alessandri’s solution was simple: he would deny the Vietminh a mobile reserve by attacking everywhere, all at once, taking full advantage of French strategic mobility and tactical superiority. Unfortunately for Alessandri his plan was never executed, Carpentier refused to approve it. Another missed opportunity? We will never know. One thing is clear: no subsequent senior French commander possessed Alessandri’s understanding of the Vietminh’s operational strengths.

While the French were pacifying, Giap was biding his time, and using it wisely. He set up training bases in China and consulted with Chinese generals fresh from their own civil war military victory. While  Alessandri was beating the local guerrillas Giap was building main force units and training them. By early 1950 he had them organized into divisions, two divisions to be precise, the 312th and the 308th.  And they were receiving arms and equipment from the Chinese, notably US artillery given to the Chinese Nationalists and captured by the Communists. General Giap turned his attention to the vulnerable French outposts adjacent to his own forces, along Route Colonial 4.

In 1950, the wet monsoon started in late April and early May. The French had stopped sending truck convoys to Cao Bang. They had a big garrison there, three Moroccan battalions and a Foreign Legion battalion plus some artillery and a fair number of T’ai partisans, but they had to be supplied by air. Giap’s first move wasn’t against either of the anchors of the RC 4 line, Lang Son or Cao Bang. Before he moved against his major objectives, he wanted to test the French and get a feeling for the effectiveness of his own troops.  So he deployed the entire 308th Division to the upper Red River Valley in February and attacked a series of small French outposts. It was the first time the Vietminh had deployed a full division.

The French responded by dropping in an entire parachute battalion and part of another. A company of the 3eme Bataillon Colonial de Commandos Parachutistes, 3rd Colonial Parachute Commando Battalion, under a Lieutenant Planet (pronounced Planee)—one hundred and fifteen men—was dropped in to relieve one of the outposts. Their mission got off badly when they were mis-dropped, on the wrong side of the Red River, and had to cross it to get to the outpost. When they approached the river they ran into two Vietminh battalions that were armed and trained better than any Vietminh that the lieutenant and his men had ever seen. The French paras no choice but to make a hasty retreat. They made it but they were forced to leave some of their own dead behind, for which Planet came in for heavy criticism.  At the outposts on the upper Red River, Giap had the French surrounded and could probably have overrun them, but he had bigger plans. In April, he withdrew the 308th to its base areas along the Chinese border.  He then shifted to his main area of operations.

The French Defeats Along RC4, Fall 1950:

By the fall of 1950 General Giap’s forces in the Bac Viet numbered five divisions. With the passing of the monsoon season his newly strengthened Vietminh Army was poised and ready to attack and defeat the French forts along the RC4 once and for all. The General’s objective was to clear French forces from the area north of Hanoi near the border with China.

General Giap felt he had much to gain by attacking those particular garrisons; first, he could ease the process of getting supplies and men from China to his headquarters in the Bac Viet and to his armies in the field; second, he was looking to get his troops some hands-on combat experience; third, he knew that a decisive victory would lead to sky-rocketing morale among the troops; and last he wanted his officers to get experience in deploying conventional units in battle.

The French had evacuated several of their RC4 outposts leaving only the Dong Khe and Cao Bang positions inland from Lang Son. Giap’s first target was Dong Khe, the middle of the three posts, where Moroccan troops manning the garrison were attacked by Vietminh troops (using American-made 75 mm pack howitzers) from the jagged karst formations in the mountains above. The Moroccans were beaten soundly, relatively few escaped. The French counterattacked quickly by dropping a parachute battalion right into the reeling position. Then the paras pounded the Vietminh, driving them back into the jungle. It proved to be a temporary respite.

At that crucial moment, the French commander Carpentier wavered, he lost valuable time before finally deciding to evacuate Dong Khe and Cao Bang. He may have been working with a lack of intelligence about the size and capabilities of Giap’s forces but more likely he just didn’t respect them, an error that westerners would make repeatedly over the coming years. He was likely also over-confident in his assessment of his troops fighting spirit. He was desperate by that point and needed the French troops to get him out of this tight jam. He also had to devise a way fast to cover the withdrawal from Cao Bang and Dong Khe down RC4.

Carpentier had options: first, was air evacuation, second was a breakout, but Carpentier decided instead for a linkup along RC 4 between the beleaguered squads from the forts to the north and a force he would send up the road to meet them. Presumably then they would fight their way back to the French held Red River Delta together. It was a plan that would require considerable speed and stealth to have a chance. Operation BAYARD was born.

While all of this planning was going on Dong Khe was being attacked a second time and this time the paras were overrun (only a handful made it out alive). Now the Vietminh would concentrate exclusively on smashing the BAYARD expedition and the Cao Bang retreat. Commanding the fleeing Cao Bang group south was Colonel Charton. Leading the BAYARD expedition north was Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Lepage. BAYARD was a disaster in logistics and execution from the get-go. To start, Carpentier, for some reason, didn’t tell his BAYARD commander Lepage any specifics about his mission!  Finally, belatedly, Carpentier ordered BAYARD to move-out up RC 4 to link up with Charton. The element of speed and surprise had been lost and had actually now turned into a liability because, little did Carpentier and Lepage suspect, they would be up against two Vietminh regiments with more on the way from the Chinese bases, they couldn’t outnumber or outrun them.

It didn’t take long for the BAYARD forces to be stopped dead in their tracks. Soon after, ambushed and harassed, Charton’s men were forced to leave the road and cut through many miles of the jungle with machetes. Lepage and his charges eventually fought their way into a real jam– they were sealed off and trapped in a limestone gorge called Cocxa, where they were annihilated.

The French had also dropped a parachute team behind in the rear to keep the road to Lang Son open and reinforce the vital French fort there. They were ambushed and largely destroyed– only five made it through to the fort according to French Journalist Lucien Bodard. Their respite was short-lived. According to Bodard: “Abandoning Lang Son would mean losing face; it would be a catastrophe from every point of view– military, strategic, political and psychological.” But that is precisely what happened– the evacuation order went out.

Was the evacuation called-for in the face of overwhelming odds or was it a premature surrender? The matter has been hotly contested ever since.  Bodard continues: “everybody knew that the evacuation of Lang Son, as it had been carried out, was henceforward the French Army’s shame… But the most depressing news was that it had been abandoned virtually intact with all its immense stores. The magnitude of these stocks was unbelievable: Giap’s divisions found all they needed in the way of food, clothing, and medical supplies for years. Far, far more serious was the question of arms and ammunition. Much of what the Viets fired at the French in the years after came from Lang Son: there were 11,00 tons of ammunition, including some 10,000 75-mm shells (and the Viets had 75-mm guns); there were 4000 new submachine guns; hundreds of gallons of gasoline– an incalculable treasure of military stores.”

Finally came the evacuation of Laokay. If Lang Son was considered the front door to China then Laokay represented the back door of Tonkin facing toward Yunnan. With the capture of Laokay all invasion routes were in the hands of the Vietminh. Now they could carry on two wars simultaneously, in the jungles or on the plains. They might attack the Red River Delta and Hanoi or stream into Laos, or both. Now the Viets could take aim at the Thai countries and their feudal chiefs who were allied to the French. This would all be too much for the French to contend with as the war progressed.

It’s interesting to consider that at this same time, sixteen hundred miles to the north, the US Marines had taken Inchon and were fighting for Seoul in S. Korea and the 8th Army was slugging its way north toward Pyongyang and a showdown with the Chinese armies at the Yalu River. This was an important fall season as far as Cold War history is concerned.

Through it all, somehow, the Cao Bang squad under Charton was able to repel repeated Vietminh attacks and miraculously many made it out alive. The rest of the French Expeditionary Force on the other hand was either on the run or wiped out altogether; eight battalions were destroyed, half of them elite Foreign Legion and parachute troops. French Expeditionary forces lost some 7,000 men and over 3,000 tons of weapons. And even though the human and material losses were demoralizing, it may have been the psychological defeat that resonated even further. Historian Bernard Fall called it the worst French colonial defeat since the failure of Montcalm nearly two hundred years earlier on the Plains of Abraham at the Battle of Quebec (1759).

In the shadow of Giap’s stunning victories along Route Colonial 4 in 1950 the French were in disarray and fearing for their safety and colony. They were making plans to evacuate as many colonists as possible from North Vietnam. Panic was in the air. They responded by sending in a new commander-in-chief, a general of higher caliber than the hapless Carpentier, his name was General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. He immediately cancelled evacuation plans and took a hard look at French strategy. De Lattre then set about to build a series of pill-box strongholds around the Red River Delta for defensive and morale purposes (the de Lattre Line). Carpentier had been reluctant to attack—he’d vetoed Alessandri’s bold plan. De Lattre on the other hand would agressively attack. But he had a problem. Remember all the military loot abandoned to the Vietminh at Lang Son? It included 4,000 brand-new MAT-49 submachine guns, enough to supply one submachine gun to every squad in Giap’s army! In an ambush, one man with a MAT-49 was easily worth a half dozen with rifles.

The French still had some advantages.  They still had trucks, planes (both combat aircraft and transports), and gunboats.  They still had more artillery and better communications.  But Giap was starting to erode those advantages. His infantry was well trained and their weapons were improving; the Chinese replaced their hodgepodge of weapons with a standardized inventory. Supplies were a lot more standardized too. Giap also got more artillery, and when he could concentrate it, could temporarily match the French.

So, in the wake of his triumphs along RC4, Giap was overly confident, too confident as it turned out. The General readied his forces for an upgrade to phase three conventional warfare. He mistakenly thought the French were ready to fall. He launched a series of over-optimistic attacks on the French perimeter around the Red River Delta which he called his General Counter Offensive in spring 1951. These attacks were expensive failures for the Vietminh. Large infantry units and onrushing human waves were caught in the open and mowed down by French firepower and napalm. As a result, Giap failed to take the Delta and his army suffered heavy losses. But to his everlasting credit he learned and adapted, adopting less ambitious tactics in the following years. From then on he adhered strictly to Mao’s military concept of fighting a war of time, distance and will. It would serve him well for decades to come.

Lucien Bodard:

“The extraordinary cast of characters included Nguyen Binh, foredoomed to kill himself; the upright General Chanson; who was to be blown to pieces; the neurasthenic voluptuary Bao Dai; General Carpentier, the Commander in Chief, shut up in his air-conditioned room; Tam, whom they called the Tiger of Cailay; the worthy Alessandri, who rather fancied himself as Indochina’s Joan of Arc; Colonel Constans, in command of the frontier zone, who never took a plane because his heart was not very strong; and Charton, the legionaires’ hero. Also there, although their heavy, boding presence remained unseen, were Ho Chi Minh and Giap, buried deep in the jungle, getting their armies ready.” – Lucien Bodard. The Quicksand War.


Lucien Bodard. The Quicksand War.

Joseph Buttinger. A Dragon Defiant.

Philip B. Davidson. Vietnam At War.

Philippe Devillers. Vietnam and France.

Bernard Fall. Street Without Joy.

Ellen Hammer. The Struggle for Indochina.

Robert Shaplen. The Lost Revolution.

Stein Tonneson. Vietnam 1946.

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