The Disasters Before Dien Bien Phu: In 1950, the Vietnamese Routed the French in Chinese Border Battles


The younger troopers of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s newly shaped 308th Division, freshly skilled and outfitted by the communist Chinese language, confirmed off their expertise in stealth operations in opposition to the French in Might 1950. 4 of Giap’s infantry battalions scaled steep limestone heights surrounding the city of Dong Khe in northeast Tonkin, the northernmost area of Vietnam, with out being detected though they had been hauling 5 American-made 75 mm pack howitzers. At daybreak on Might 25, they opened hearth with a devastating sustained barrage on the French defenses and the 800-man garrison, consisting largely of Moroccan riflemen below French officers.

Giap, commander in chief of communist-led Viet Minh independence fighters at conflict with colonial ruler France since December 1946, lifted the barrage after two days of shelling. His troops then attacked in human waves, overrunning the bottom and virtually wiping out the remaining defenders, a couple of of whom escaped into the jungle. At midmorning on Might 27, 48 hours after the barrage started, the Viet Minh had seized management of Dong Khe.

Vo Nguyen Giap

The French responded rapidly to the Might 27 assault, dropping the third Colonial Parachute Battalion onto the overrun base late the identical morning and stunning Viet Minh troops engaged in looting. After a number of hours of heavy combating, usually hand-to-hand, the Viet Minh deserted the put up and melted again into the jungle.

Giap by no means meant to carry the bottom. The overall had completed his goal for now. The Might assault was Giap’s final alternative to season the lads of the 308th Division for formidable duties forward. He was making ready to unleash a large-scale offensive in opposition to six French frontier posts—together with Dong Khe—alongside Colonial Route 4 close to the border with China when the monsoon rains resulted in late September or early October. Months of arduous preparation lay forward of Giap.

After the Viet Minh withdrew from Dong Khe, the French commander in chief, Gen. Marcel Carpentier, a complete stranger to Indochina, may have prevented one other Viet Minh onslaught by evacuating the frontier forts, which contained virtually 12,000 French and North African troops, French International Legionnaires, allied Tai tribesmen and camp followers. He had sufficient time to evacuate them. Nonetheless, he failed to take action.

Carpentier could have contracted hubris, a disdain for the enemy that contaminated many French—and later American—officers. They vastly underestimated the combating capabilities of the enemy whereas significantly overestimating their very own.

In late 1949, Giap ratcheted up strain on the massive French provide convoys attempting to navigate Route 4 to succeed in the forts. The convoys drove into lethal ambushes, roadblocks and blown bridges. The rising presence in southern China of Mao Zedong’s communist forces—just lately victorious within the Chinese language Civil Conflict in opposition to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists—inspired Giap to assault the Route 4 posts in late 1950.

Giap had spent grueling months within the Viet Bac area, a distant territory in north and northeastern Tonkin the place the Viet Minh insurgency was headquartered. He organized his 100,000 most important power regulars into six cellular divisions (70 battalions) backed by artillery, a lot of which consisted of U.S.-made weapons captured from the defeated Chinese language Nationalists.

Giap was now prepared to offer his troops their baptism of fireplace in typical warfare. The Viet Minh’s goal was the string of remoted Route 4 French forts: Dong Khe, Cao Bang, That Khe, Nam Nung, Tien Yen and Lang Son. One other fortress, Lao Cai, supported by 4 surrounding forts, was within the Tai Highlands, west of the Purple River the place it crosses the Chinese language border. A decisive Viet Minh victory would clear French forces from all of northern Tonkin east of the Purple River, permitting unfettered motion of males and provides from communist China into the Viet Bac. As a bonus, it will give Giap’s troops a morale-boosting triumph of their first main take a look at on the battlefield.

In Might 1949 the French authorities despatched military Chief of Employees Gen. Georges Revers to Tonkin on a fact-finding mission. He beneficial that border posts be closely bolstered or deserted as quickly as safely potential. The French did neither.

After recapturing Route 4 in 1947 throughout Operation Lea, the French put in everlasting garrisons at intervals alongside the “highway”—truly, nothing greater than a well-worn, one-lane grime path, 12-feet broad at its widest and flanked on either side by closely forested hills, jungle and jagged limestone peaks. In 1950, Route 4 was managed by the Viet Minh. The forts weren’t mutually supportable and might be attacked individually at Giap’s discretion. They weren’t solely weak but in addition tying down 1000’s of troops wanted within the Purple River Delta, the place the Viet Minh had been including to the variety of villages they managed.

Giap was by no means idle in the course of the moist months between campaigning seasons. From 1948 to 1950 he established a logistical system absolutely able to supporting his giant combined-arms divisions over lengthy distances and durations of time. He was lucky to have gained a strong ally in Mao. The guy communist helped Giap resolve his heavy armament and complicated provide issues, despatched skilled officers to the Viet Bac to behave as trainers and mentors, and established a navy advisory group on the battalion stage and better to assist Giap and his officers plot technique. The overall and his workers spent limitless hours making ready for assaults. The infantry used scale fashions of the focused forts to apply assaults, day after day. Through the coming offensive, Giap by no means attacked with out at the very least a 3-1 benefit in numbers; at occasions it was 8-1.

By late 1950 Viet Minh roadblocks, mines and ambushes alongside Route 4 had inflicted heavy losses in French troopers and gear on their solution to the massive base at Cao Bang, commanded by the “Preventing Legionnaire,” Lt. Col. Marcel Charton. Stymied on the bottom, the French started supplying Cao Bang solely by air. They evacuated their smaller Route 4 posts, leaving Cao Bang, Lao Cai, That Khe and Dong Khe the one forts nonetheless garrisoned upcountry from the regional headquarters at Lang Son. Route 4 had turn into the deadliest highway in Indochina. Because the Legionnaires put it, “The Route Coloniale No. 4 is a highway than a person travels just one time alive.”

In early September Carpentier introduced that the French would assault and seize the city of Thai Nguyen on Colonial Route 3. Afterward, the garrison at Cao Bang would evacuate and stroll south on Route 4, leaving artillery and heavy transport behind. Carpentier instructed Charton to conduct his withdrawal with “pace and shock,” neither of which was remotely potential alongside Route 4. Thai Nguyen had no tactical connection to the Route 4 forts. Its seize was primarily a publicity stunt to deflect consideration from the Cao Bang evacuation.

French soldiers keep watch on Colonial Route 4. In 1950, it was a dirt road about 12 feet at the widest and nearly overtaken by vegetation. / CCI, Bridgeman Images

In the meantime, a aid column would push north from Lang Son. When it reached Cao Bang, the mixed power would transfer south to the comparatively safer Purple River Delta. Carpentier foolishly hoped each goals might be accomplished by mid-October earlier than the tip of the monsoon rains and earlier than Giap was prepared for cellular operations—though, in actual fact, he already was. The overall had moved at the very least 14 infantry battalions and three of artillery to the frontier ridge.

Effectively earlier than Carpentier may perform his evacuation plan, 5 battalions of the Viet Minh 308th Division, backed by a heavy weapons battalion, attacked Dong Khe on Sept. 16, marking the opening spherical of Giap’s assault on the border posts.

After a mortar and artillery barrage Viet Minh commandos, carrying solely shorts and carrying Bangalore torpedoes (explosive-filled tubes) and satchels full of explosives, approached the fort. They blasted holes within the perimeter wire and had been adopted by waves of attackers. The 300 defenders of fifth and sixth corporations, 2nd Battalion, third International Legion Infantry Regiment, needed to combat with out air assist due to heavy cloud cowl however nonetheless had been capable of beat again repeated assaults as casualties mounted on either side. The attackers, nonetheless, resolutely pressed on for greater than two days. At midmorning on Sept. 18, they lastly overran Dong Khe. The 300-man garrison was decimated: 140 Legionnaires had been captured, 12 escaped to That Khe, and the remainder had been useless or lacking.

Regardless of the loss at Dong Khe, Carpentier plowed forward together with his plan. He attacked Thai Nguyen in late September with two infantry divisions, backed by armor, artillery and air cowl. His forces took the city in mid-October in opposition to restricted resistance. Since Thai Nguyen contained little of worth and the enemy made no effort to retake the city, the French stayed there for less than 10 days earlier than abandoning it. Giap’s thorough preparations had paid off. Together with his troops astride Route 4 and holding Dong Khe, he had clearly gained the initiative.

Apprehensive that Cao Bang is perhaps surrounded, Carpentier ordered Charton to destroy his artillery and heavy motor transport, then start his withdrawal to the south on the night of Oct. 2. The Legionnaire chief was instructed to take Route 4, not the safer Route 3 resulting in Thai Nguyen. That proved to be an enormous, pricey blunder, provided that the Viet Minh had been blocking Route 4.

Carpentier assembled a aid power at Lang Son. Commanded by Lt. Col. Marcel Le Web page, it consisted of three North African battalions—the first and eleventh Moroccan Tabors and a battalion from the eighth Moroccan Rifle Regiment. The Le Web page column, often called Process Pressure Bayard, was ordered north to That Khe, the place it arrived on Sept. 19 and joined forces with one of the vital acclaimed, battle-hardened items in Indochina, the first International Legion Parachute Battalion.

The officers of the parachute battalion quickly turned alarmed at Le Web page’s obvious indecision and inexperience. A “confidence hole” arose between the Legion paratroopers and the African riflemen. Le Web page was clearly unsuited for the mission. An artilleryman, he was unfamiliar with jungle warfare. He additionally had well being points, was not sure of his Africans and seemingly not sure of himself.

On Sept. 30, Le Web page acquired what was an inconceivable order below the prevailing circumstances: March Process Pressure Bayard north and retake Dong Khe, 11 miles away, by Oct. 2. With no intelligence on the state of affairs at Dong Khe, Le Web page was rightly hesitant. Heavy rains rendered air cowl inconceivable and turned Route 4 right into a muddy morass that allowed no artillery or vans to accompany the duty power. Moreover, Giap had massed at the very least 10 infantry battalions, backed by a full artillery regiment, round Dong Khe. Le Web page’s hope that the order could be rescinded didn’t materialize. Because the column moved out, he advised a pal, “We’ll by no means come again.”

At dusk on Sept. 30, Le Web page and his 3,500-man process power headed for Dong Khe with the first International Legion Parachute Battalion main the best way. By 5 p.m. the subsequent day, Oct. 1, Le Web page and his column had, surprisingly, managed to combat by means of quite a few obstacles and attain the japanese outskirts of the city, the place the colonel lastly halted after coming below heavy machine gun and artillery hearth from the fort ruins. Le Web page boldly tried a pincer motion on Oct. 2, sending the Legionnaires in opposition to one enemy flank and the Moroccans in opposition to the opposite. Each assaults failed amid the dense jungle, robust counterattacks and steep limestone peaks. Le Web page’s column needed to bypass the fort.

Le Web page was ordered to go away Route 4 and transfer west the subsequent day, Oct. 3 When the Tonkin theater commander, Maj. Gen. Marcel Alessandri, was knowledgeable of the order, he wired Carpentier: “Cancel every little thing. In case you keep on it is going to be a criminal offense.”

With the first International Legion Parachute Battalion in entrance, Process Pressure Bayard fought its means west after which north from jagged peak to jagged peak alongside the Quang Liet Path earlier than it halted at Na Pa, simply 3 miles from Dong Khe. That night time the Le Web page column, huddled in a “bowl” on the facet of a hill, was hit by wave after wave of Viet Minh assaults, however held on.

Ordered to go away Cao Bang at dusk on Oct. 2, Charton didn’t destroy his artillery and motor transport as instructed. As a substitute he loaded all his males onto vans and didn’t get underway till midday on Oct. 3. Led by the third Battalion, third International Legion Infantry Regiment, Charton’s miles-long column included 1,000 French troops, 600 Legionnaires, 1,000 largely Tai fighters and their households, the wounded and 500 males, ladies and youngsters who lived at Cao Bang.

A wounded French soldier is placed on a stretcher after evacuation from Viet Minh-held That Khe in November 1950 during a truce. / Bettman/Getty Images

His progress slowed by the same old ambushes and roadblocks, Charton had traveled solely 9 miles by dawn on Oct. 4, when the column halted close to Nam Nung on Route 4.

Round midday, Charton acquired disturbing information in two radio messages from Lang Tune: First, the Le Web page column, after leaving Route 4 the earlier afternoon, was now surrounded within the jungle west and south of Dong Khe and being mauled; second, Charton’s column was to maneuver as rapidly as potential to Le Web page’s support. With Route 4 blocked by the Viet Minh, Charton destroyed his now-useless vans and artillery, left the refugees behind and pushed west off Route 4 into the comb with the third Battalion, third International Legion Infantry Regiment, within the lead as the lads hacked by means of virtually impenetrable vegetation.

Charton, at the very least, had maps of the realm and managed to search out the Quang Liet Path main south to the Quang Liet Valley, the place he hoped to rendezvous on Hill 477 with the Le Web page column. Le Web page’s International Legion parachute battalion, in the meantime, was nonetheless trapped on a hill, surrounded by excessive limestone cliffs that neglected the valley and the small hamlet of Coc Xa to the west. Their solely exit was a slim passage, the Coc Xa Gorge, on the finish of the valley.

With progress exceedingly sluggish as a result of harsh terrain and heavy enemy presence, the Charton column doggedly thrust its means south alongside the faint path for 2 days, nearing the Quang Liet Valley and making radio contact with International Legion paratroopers on Oct. 6. New orders known as for the Charton column to carry Hill 590 and canopy the remainder of the valley whereas the paratroopers within the vanguard of Process Pressure Bayard would power a passage of the gorge and push for Coc Xa.

In the meantime, Le Web page’s troops continued a determined combat in opposition to overwhelming numbers within the heavy vegetation and limestone peaks southwest of Dong Khe. After a number of French items had been ambushed and damaged up, the survivors had been hunted like animals in a forest festering with Viet Minh troopers screaming in French: “Give yourselves up, French troopers. You might be misplaced!”

As daybreak approached on Oct. 7, what remained of Process Pressure Bayard was nonetheless trapped on the hill. Surrounded by two enemy battalions, Le Web page requested the Legionnaires of the parachute battalion to interrupt by means of the “bottleneck” at Coc Xa Gorge. Earlier than the solar got here up they’d accomplished so however had been virtually worn out within the course of. Solely 130 members of the battalion’s 500 males survived the morning. The rest of the Le Web page column was closely engaged, as properly. When Oct. 7 ended, solely 530 members of the unique 3,500-man Process Pressure Bayard remained.

The haggard remnants of the Le Web page column lastly linked up with the depleted vanguard of Charton’s column, the third Battalion, third International Legion Infantry Regiment, east of Coc Xa, however the ordeal was removed from over. The survivors divided into small teams, leaving the wounded with volunteer medics, and tried to get by means of Viet Minh-filled jungles to That Khe, 10 miles to the east. That night time, a rescue firm of 270 males from the third Colonial Commando Parachute Battalion and 130 males from the first International Legion Parachute Battalion Alternative Firm had been airlifted into That Khe. The Viet Minh selected that morning to launch their heaviest assault but in opposition to Charton’s column and succeeded in wounding and capturing Charton himself. Issues went from unhealthy to worse when the panic unfold from ranks of Le Web page’s terrified North Africans—bodily ravaged, delirious and virtually uncontrolled—to the Charton group, which itself fell right into a state of chaos. Solely the Legionnaires held collectively as efficient combating items, however their numbers quickly dwindled. 1000’s of Viet Minh troopers moved in and shortly it was over.

Some 300 males reached That Khe on Oct. 8 and 9, together with 29 survivors of the first International Legion Parachute battalion, the primary French airborne battalion ever misplaced in fight. That Khe was deserted late on Oct. 9 in haste. The garrison, townspeople and survivors of the Le Web page and Charton columns streamed down Route 4. The thinned ranks of the third Colonial Commando Parachute Battalion/1st International Legion Parachute Battalion power, reluctant to go away whereas their comrades had been misplaced within the jungle not far-off, acted because the rear guard.

In an environment of panic, the frontier commanding officer at Lang Son ordered a basic withdrawal alongside Route 4 from That Khe, which added to the chaos and losses. The third Colonial Commando/1st International Legion parachute power, 400 robust when it evacuated That Khe on Oct. 10, hit heavy communist resistance midway to Lang Son and misplaced half its males. Once more, the survivors broke up into small teams and tried to push by means of the jungle to security, however had been killed virtually to a person, making the third Colonial Commando Parachute Battalion the second airborne battalion to be misplaced in motion.

French troops move toward a village near their base at Dien Bien Phu, where a defeat in May 1954 would end French rule in Indochina, despite some battlefield successes by new commanders after the humiliating fort evacuation in 1950. / Corbis via Getty Images

On Oct. 17-18, the French deserted Lang Son though there was no direct navy risk, leaving large shops of apparatus and arms intact—sufficient meals, clothes, medical provides, weapons, ammunition and materiel to produce a Viet Minh division for at the very least a 12 months.

Tai partisans holding Lao Cai’s 4 small, satellite tv for pc forts fought their solution to Lao Cai. Then the whole power was evacuated and Lao Cai deserted, making Giap’s victory full. (A coalition of 12 tribes shaped the Tai Federation, which was pleasant to the French and had been given semi-autonomous standing throughout the French Union in 1948 and a capital at Lai Chau, simply west of the Purple River on the Sino-Vietnamese border.)

Giap’s victory got here at a excessive price, nonetheless. Of the 30,000 males dedicated, as many as 9,000 Viet Minh troopers perished. Many had been wounded males who died earlier than they might be carried to the rear, the place Giap’s insufficient medical companies had been unable to deal with large casualties. Nonetheless, Giap’s unprecedented positive factors left the French in a state of disarray. It was feared the Purple River Delta could be attacked, and calls to evacuate colonists from Tonkin had been heard. Luckily for the French, the disaster handed. They quickly welcomed a reliable, virtually legendary new commander in chief, Gen. Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, who fully reversed French fortunes inside a 12 months, reinstilling confidence and satisfaction inside his combating forces.

Nonetheless, the sting of defeat remained. “When the smoke cleared,” wrote French historian Bernard Fall, “the French had suffered their best colonial defeat since Montcalm had died at Quebec in 1749. They’d misplaced 6,000 troops [4,800 killed], 13 artillery items, 125 mortars, 450 vans, three armored platoons, 940 machine weapons, 1,200 submachine weapons and greater than 8,000 rifles. Their deserted shares alone sufficed for the gear of a complete further Viet-Minh division.”

With out anyplace close to sufficient males nor the political will essential to carry the First Indochina Conflict (1946-54) to a profitable navy conclusion, France’s effort to carry its Indochinese colonies lastly got here to an ignominious finish in mid-1954, within the muddy ruins of a flimsy fortress in a valley known as Dien Bien Phu. V

John Walker served in Vietnam July 1970-June 1971 as a sergeant with the 173rd Airborne Brigade at Touchdown Zone English in Binh Dinh province in South Vietnam’s central coastlands. He lives in Oceanside, California.

his article appeared within the December 2021 concern of Vietnam journal. For extra tales from Vietnam journal, subscribe and go to us on Fb.

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