Colin F. Jones

THE CONFLICT IN VIETNAM: Part 2

FRENCH OCCUPATION

In 1940 French Indo-China had remained loyal to Vichy France allowing the Japanese to occupy the country without being affronted with resistance. The Japanese treacherously five years later, massacred the unsuspecting French forces, when allied forces neared the Indo-China borders.

The various nationalistic groups of Indo-China (encouraged by loss of French prestige in World War 2) campaigned for some form of self-government, (1946) causing the French to respond with a bombardment from a naval Cruiser on Hanoi to crush the rioting.

This action stimulated Ho Chi Minh to lead his nationalist and Communist followers into the hills to begin the Vietnam War. Vo Nguyen Giap a former provincial History teacher, whose wife had died in a French prison in 1940, was the leader of the communist forces. He would ultimately command the North Vietnamese Army in its war against the USA.

The war was a Guerrilla war mounted against the French Colonial Regular Army. Locally recruited Asian Troops fought alongside French volunteers and the Moroccan, Algerian and Senegalese soldiers of the old Colonial regiments.

The newly created Foreign Legion parachute battalion (1st BEP) and the BCP (Colonial Parachute Battalion) were organized as a ‘Fire Brigade’ designed and used to react to the offensives launched by the Viet Minh.

It was evident by 1950 that the prospects of victory for the French had diminished considerably. French settlers had undermined early attempts to negotiate and due to the Communist victory in China the Viet Minh had a safe base from which to operate.

Guerrilla type conflict was soon abandoned for conventional warfare with highly trained Divisions of Viet Minh moving into action supported by massed Artillery.

In rear guard action at Cao Bang close to the Chinese frontier the BEP were almost entirely wiped out. In 1954 this Battalion would be destroyed again at Dien Bien Phu. The war in fact would cost the Foreign Legion some 10,000 casualties.

By 1950 the forces of Ho Chi Minh numbered well over 100,000 regular troops organized into divisions with full Artillery and Mortar support.

Working in the fields by day were some 250,000 Guerrillas; by night continually harassing the French forces, supplied by a steady flow of weapons and ammunition from China.

The guerrilla type war, small scale attacks, sniping and ambushing changed dramatically in September of 1950 as some 30 Battalions of Viet Minh regulars were deployed north of the Red River for a concentrated attack upon the frontier posts. Each was overrun or evacuated, one after another, Garrisons overwhelmed by numbers. Relief columns were ambushed, news only eventually reaching Hanoi as survivors staggered from the jungle with their pitiful tales of slaughter.

The French did not have much air support, and what they had was hopelessly inadequate. Helicopters were very few, and lacked the range to support most of the isolated positions.

French paratroops jumped from WW-2 German Ju-52’s, although the Douglas B-26, with heavy machine guns and bombs did supply good support for the ground troops. A few F8F Bearcat fighter-bombers used High Explosive and Napalm and occasionally in major conflicts Douglas B-26 Invaders were used. The problem was though, that the Viet Minh positions could seldom be found.

Armoured vehicles, both tracked and wheeled proved inadequate, susceptible to ambush. The Viet Minh were expert at camouflage and were rapidly learning the art of Motor Transport Ambush. Aerial reconnaissance rarely spotted the massive ambushes set up along the highways. Anti-tank weapons would be dug in to ‘box off’ the convoys by knocking out vehicles at each end of the column. The losses were horrific and great.

DIEN BIEN PHU

The French forces occupied the remote valley of Dien Bien Phu in the winter of 1953. They were there to relieve the pressure from the Red River area by establishing a base from which ground troops could penetrate deep into Viet Minh occupied territory.

On Hill Beatrice on 13th March 1954 the 13th Demi-Brigade, Legion Trainee, were destroyed by concentrated Viet Minh Artillery fire, and under the glow of hundreds of flares the Viet Minh troops poured in through the gaps blasted in the perimeter wire to over run the position. 556 French Foreign Legion soldiers were casualties out of a Battalion of 750.

The 5th BPVN (Vietnamese Paratroopers) under the leadership of Major Andre Outsell jumped from waves of transport aircraft to join the troops on the ground landing on the original drop zones. Just prior to this the last of the aircraft two F8F Bearcats made their escape from the battered airfield.

In pouring rain the paratroopers struggled 10 miles up the valley south of the embattled defences under constant harassment, digging in as best they could.

The northern-most outpost, ‘Gabrielle’, situated two miles above the airstrip was occupied by the 5/7th Algerian Rifles was so vulnerable that it was the subject of jokes. It was in fact in size the dimensions as a 50-per cent zone of 105-mm Howitzers firing at medium range.

The barrage began on March 14, followed by an assault, by eight Battalions. The Algerians fought bravely, counter attacking and winning back ground earlier lost to the Viet Minh. The attack was checked by early afternoon by the French Artillery leaving piles of bodies everywhere.

An hour later the Viet Minh returned firing 75-mm recoilless rifles, knocking out the northern machine gun bunker and slowly breaking through to overrun the position. Small pockets of Algerians and a Legion mortar company fought on, but with the collapse of the 5th BPVN’s counter attack, they began to surrender on 15th March.

The 5th BPVN were new to the area and with three M24 tanks in support had to follow the Legionaries. The tanks drove blindly under heavy shellfire through the night. They had little chance caught in withering crossfire and although many Vietnamese fled the Legionnaires stood and fought. The French had lost 1,000 men in a single night. The following Viet Minh assaults failed to make any major gains, but the defeats of Beatrice and Gabrielle set a pattern for the rest of the battle.

The perimeter gradually began to shrink, the Viet Minh digging in each night as they continued to advance. The defending French troops launched many raids attempting to capture a trench for a period of time to allow them to squash it with one of the remaining tanks. They crept out and set mines and booby traps, but the Artillery of the Viet Minh would continue to pound and another cluster of bunkers would be taken over by more assaults. Counter attacks were mounted to regain vital positions.

By early April the attacking Viet Minh had suffered 10,000 casualties, and the battle seemed to pause in equilibrium. The battle along route 41 to the northeast, and that above Dien Bien Phu shortened the pause. The French had failed, miscalculated their misconception that their air force could bomb the Viet Minh supply columns into submission and the flow of artillery and ammunitions were not ceased at any point in time.

The French aircraft above the base were subjected to continual automatic small arms fire, artillery fire, illuminating shells, Bangalore torpedoes and searchlights. It was difficult for them to fly at only 300 meters at night and under such harassment. During April eight planes were shot down and 47 damaged. On 26th April two B-26 Bombers were shot down flying at 10,000 feet; heavier guns had arrived along with Chinese advisors.

The breakdown of aerial resupply was disastrous, poisoning relations between the Garrison and the air force. Only 23 of the 60 C-119 aircraft loads expected arrived and three of them dropped their loads on the communist side during the final two days. Most of the troops had but one day’s supply of food left.

The failure of the air force to deliver, spelt doom for those on the ground. They were not only short of food, but also of ammunition and water. Many units had been cut off from the only water-purifier, the local supply offering little else other than disease, certainly instant dysentery.

The greatest tragedy was the horror of the wounded crammed into every space available in the underground hospital. The monsoon rains were beginning to flood the valley and medical supplies were in short supply. Maggots infested their wounds.

Small units counter attacked to retrieve medical supplies dropped among the communists: frantic affairs resulting in many deaths and many heroic actions in the retrieval of the vital supplies.

The options to use B-29 Super fortresses to carpet bomb the attacking Viet Minh, and even to drop atomic bombs were rejected by the Americans because they did not want to become entangled in the ground war.

The Viet Minh due to a batch of aerial photos dropped among them from the air new every inch of the Garrison position.

Individual positions fought on as best they could, a few escaping into the jungle. ‘Isabelle’ held on until night from where a few hundred soldiers escaped.

French aircraft were allowed into Dien Bien Phu to evacuate a few of the wounded in exchange for no more attacks upon route 41, allowing the massive 500,000 strong concentration of Viet Minh to march to a new front line near Hanoi without harassment.

Of the 16,500 French soldiers who fought at Dien Bien Phu only 3,000 survived. 3,000 men were killed in action, but 10,000 died in the hands of the Viet Minh on death marches to distant POW camps, and in those camps in the last three months of the war.

French Indo China ceased to exist in July, and became Vietnam divided into North and South.