Article HOA BINH CAMPAIGN - VIET MINH ATTACK, THE FRENCH RESPOND

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Thanks rotor, heres another article I found very interesting :mrgreen:

HOA BINH CAMPAIGN:
VIET MINH ATTACK, THE FRENCH RESPOND


During the last few months of 1951 and the beginning of 1952 the French in Indochina tried to wrench the initiative from the Viet Minh. The failure of Vo Nguyen Giap’s (the Viet Minh commander) May 1951 attack on the Red River Delta showed the French how the Viet Minh could be defeated if the conditions were favorable. So, the French aimed to position the Viet Minh in places where their lack of modern heavy weapons could be exposed.

Control of the Tonkin Delta would enabled Giap a steady move from secure bases in the northern part of the T’ai Highlands, down the Red and Black Rivers (respectively known as the Hong and So Bong), into the lower reaches of the Red River Delta near Ninh Binh. Secondly, by traveling down the upper reaches of the Boi River valley, his forces could turn north to Cho Ben, thereby threatening Hanoi from the south. Finally, it would allowed his logisticians an unclogged flow of arms, munitions and supplies from VM depots to forces in northern central Vietnam. His strategy was unfolded on 22 September 1951, when the Viet Minh 312th Division crossed the Red River and attacked French/Vietnamese garrisons along the Nghia Lo Ridge (140km from Hanoi) in the T’ai Highlands between the Red and Black Rivers on 29 September. The garrisons were able to hold on until reinforced by the 8eme Bataillon Parachutistes Coloniaux (BPC), on 3 October. When the 2eme Bataillon Etranger Parachutiste (BEP), dropped in the following day, they mounted an aggressive clearing operation with air support for the next several days. On 6 October the 10eme Bataillon Parachutiste Chasseur a Pied (BPCP), jumped in to help reinforce the garrisons’ defenders. Even thought the enemy division had been driven back, the scene was set for a year of heavy fighting in the area between the two rivers. For the French, this victory bred a dangerous illusion that if isolated garrisons could hold off initial attacks they could always be reinforced by paratroopers; and that the Viet Minh (VM) would not press home assaults in the face of heavy fire power.

Sensing an opportunity for a large-scale engagement, the French supreme commander, Gen. Jean de Lattre de Tassigny decided to move into the area, in strength, by occupying Hoa Binh, 62km west of Hanoi. This move offered certain advantages. While it was not an offensive aimed at VM strongholds, it would put the French astride the road which connected the Than Hoa sector, where the VM 320th Division strongholds were located and where large amounts of supplies were stored. Although control of the Hoa Binh sector would not totally cut the VM supply line it would definitely hamper it. The reason for occupying Hoa Binh was that French Intelligence had noted that the VM were preparing for another offensive on the Delta. It was time for the French to go on the offensive and force the enemy to react. The second reason was that the Muong tribe, who were loyal to the French throughout the Indochina War, considered it to be their capital.

The first phase of the Hoa Binh Campaign kicked off on 10 November 1951 with ‘Operation Tulipe’, to seize the Cho Ben Pass and extend French military control beyond Provincial Route 21. While Task Force North attacked south to secure the Route 21 corridor at Cho Ben, Task Force Center attacked west from Nam Duong region. It would then linked up with the 1er Batallion Etranger Parachustiste (BEP), which had dropped at 0910 hours on 9 November, onto the flooded rice paddies adjoining Cho Ben. In conjunction with these thrust, supporting operations were carried out by other task forces to the south and east of Cho Ben.

The VM abandoned Cho Ben after putting up token resistance, but fighting along Route 21 proved harder, involving two battalions of the VM 64th Regiment, three companies of the 164th Regional Battalion, and local VM forces. French air superiority, mobility and firepower gave the French the advantage. By 1430 hours that afternoon, the 1er BPC, Commando Vandenberghe, and other elements attached to Groupe Mobile 2 (GM) had passed through the 1er BEP’s lines to reach their objective two kilometers north of Cho Ben. With this French toehold in the Muong Highlands, de Lattre moved on to Phase II of the campaign.

Following the seizure of Cho Ben, de Lattre restructured his force into three operational groups (OG) and told them to take Hoa Binh. Operational Group North would sweep south from the mouth of the Black River as far as Tu Vu. Operational Group South would push west along Route Coloniale 6 to link up with a three-battalion paratrooper task force that had dropped near Hoa Binh. Groupe Mobile 2, operating as an operational liaison group, would maintain liaison between these two pincers groups.

On 13 November 1951 ‘Operation Lotus’ commenced. By nightfall of 13 November, OG North had advanced as far as Dan The and the Ap Da Chong crossroads along the Black River. OG South reached Kem Pass on RC 6 in the early morning of the 14th. The link up was not made until a day or so later for the Liaison Group got bogged down in dense vegetation. Fog covered the Black River near Hoa Binh that morning (14th), but by 1230 hours it had cleared and German vintage Ju-52s dropped the 2eme BPC, including an engineer platoon, an artillery section, and a paratrooper battle staff. The 1er BPC jumped in at 1410 hours, followed by the 7eme Bataillon Coloniaux de Commandos Parachustistes (BCCP). All units jumped into the Hoa Binh area. Hoa Binh was taken with little opposition. Meanwhile, the ground elements of OG South continued clearing VM forces from around RC 6 while two engineering battalions set to repairing the roadway in their wake. By evening the 1er and 2eme Muong Batallions (infantry battalions made up a Montagards) of the Groupe Mobile 3 pushed out of the forest and down into the Hoa Binh depression, where they crossed the Black River to link up with the paratroopers. While two of the Marine Nationale’s coastal and riverine dinassaut units (Division Navales d’Assaut) from Viet Tri forced the loop of the Black River. Hoa Binh was liberated and by the 22nd the operation was over. The taking of Cho Ben and Hoa Binh cost the French 10 dead, 10 wounded and one missing. VM losses were an estimated 608 dead and 3 captured. After the operation all paratroopers units were returned to Hanoi except the 1er BPC, which remained behind to garrison the Ap Da Chong crossroads.

Groupes Mobiles (GM) were self-sufficient motorized brigades formed in 1950 on the model of World War II U.S. ‘combat commands. These typically consisted of three infantry battalions, three artillery batteries, a platoon of armored vehicles and another of tanks, and auxiliaries units of engineers, signal and medical, totaling 3,000–3,500 men. The dinassaut (DNA) were formed in 1947 made up of ex-US landing crafts, first for river resupply, security and river insertion of troops onto the river banks during waterborne operations. Later the landing crafts were fitted with cannon turrets for direct fire support. Typically composition of a DNA was an LST, Landing Craft Tank (LCT), or a LSSL command and fire support ship; six to ten Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM), some armed with gun turrets, others with 81mm mortars; three LCVPs and 3 to 5 Landing Craft Armored (LCA).

Having seized the initiative, de Lattre anticipating the hard fighting that laid ahead, he divided the region into three sectors. The RC 6 sector, manned by the GM 2, covered the terrain along the road between Xuan Mai to Xom Pheo. The Black River sector held by GM 7, patrolled the area between La Phu to Tu Vu, and the Hoa Binh sector, controlled by GM 3, occupied the town, airfield, and ferry points. In order to stay in control of the supply routes, the French needed to set up fortress-like strongholds along the Black River and RC6. Once this had been established, the French soon discovered that it was difficult to resupply Hoa Binh, also the strongholds themselves quickly became a liability. The main objective of the operation soon became lost in a desperate battle to resupply seven French garrisons that dotted the banks along the Black River going south towards the Red River. La Phu (modern-day La Hao-Phu An), the northernmost, laid on the west bank, followed by Dan The, Ap Da Chong, Xom Bu, Ap Phu To and Rocher Notre Dame (now Cho Che), on the east bank, and finally Tu Vu across from Rocher Notre Dame, on the west. As for the supply route along RC6, convoys were constantly being ambushed. The first occurred on 2 December, when a large convoy was ambushed at Dong Ben between Kem Pass and the Black River. Even though the attackers were driven away, 20 trucks out of 40 with its supplies were destroyed.

The Hoa Binh sector’s mission was to establish and maintain a center of fortified resistance on both sides of the Black River and a forward defense of the Hoa Binh depression, using the airfield as their center. Forces within Hoa Binh included the 3eme Batallion/13eme Demi-Brigade Legion Etranger (DBLE) to the south, and the 2eme BPC standing in reserve. Mobile Groupe 3, consisted of the 1er and 2eme Muong Batallions and a platoon of automantic weapons carriers, moved throughout the sector, receiving support from a platoon made up of M-26 Chaffee tanks, three 105mm artillery batteries, and an engineer company.

Giap, having realized the superiority of the French, withdrew his units from the Hoa Binh sector, only temporarily. The French, in fact, had captured little of value to them. While Giap, allowed the French to take Hoa Binh, he saw a possible opportunity of repeating his successes of 1950 against French strongholds along Route Coloniale 4. Once the French had settled down in Hoa Binh, he ordered the 304th, 308th, and 312th Infantry Divisions, to take up positions and reengage the French in the Hoa Binh sector. The 316th and 320th Inf. Divisions were sent to disrupt the French supply line on RC 6 coming from Hanoi to Xom Pheo and the Black River itself. Unfortunately RC 6 had been devastated by both sides and had not been repaired, supply to reach the French garrisons in the Hoa Binh sector was slow. The Black River route was three times longer than the road and was extremely vulnerable to enemy attacks. This route proved fatal on 22 December when the navy lost an armored landing craft and three patrol boats near Lac Son in RC 6’s sector along the Black River.

By 4 December 1951 the 304th had moved into position from where they could cut off the 1er BPC at Ap Da Chong. While, two regiment of the 312th were prepared to attack Rocher Notre Dame. By 9 December, two other regiments from the 312th were ready to attack the French garrison at Tu Vu. Receiving information from two captured Viet Minh officers, the French launched a preemptive assault. The French launched their own offensive (Op. Jasmin) on the morning of the 10th, using the 1er BPC to ease the threat at Rocher Notre Dame, while GM 4 in conjunction with 7eme BPC cleared the southern slopes of the Ba Vi Mountains and the route between Chai Koai and Thuy Co. These unit were supported by airstrikes on enemy positions to try and defeat the enemy as fast as possible. By the 10th GM 4 had pushed through Van Mong and Yen Le and began to penetrate the area near Mount Ba Vi. This attack, however, bogged down in the difficult terrain, prompting a covering group from Task Force North to under take the principal assault. As for the 1er BPC, moving east, ran into the 209th Regiment of the 312th Division in the Xom Sui depression. The fighting proved vicious, that it soon came down to hand-to-hand. Only close air support allowed the 1er BPC to break contact. The 209th pulled back its units in recognition of French air superiority, the paratrooper were able to recover only 15 casualties, 87 were missing in action. Their sacrifice forced Colonel Le Trong Tan commander of the 312th Division to cancel his attack against Rocher Notre-Dame.

Viet Minh plans, however, had called for a simultaneous attack on both Rocher Notre-Dame and Tu Vu, the latter had been wrecked. The garrison at Tu Vu, consisting of two Moroccan Tirailleurs companies and two tank platoons. Though reasonably strong, the Ngoi Lat River (a tributary of the Black R.) divided the garrison into two forces, and reinforcing one side or the other would prove to be difficult. After a concentrated mortar and artillery barrage, the VM attacked at 2130hours that night. Under the flick of parachute flares, the Moroccans/French opened up with mortar, machine gun and rifle fire and called in for artillery. Despite severe casualties inflicted on the Viet Minh by French fire power, mines, barbed wire and hand-to-hand combat, it became clear at about 2340 hours that the southern half of the garrison could not hold out for much longer as wave after wave of VM attacked them.

At 0115 hours the remnants of the southern half of the garrison were ordered to pull back to the northern position. At 0340 hours on the morning of 11 December, elements of the VM 88th Regiment/308th Division had assaulted the northern part of the garrison and penetrated the inner perimeter. After some fierce fighting and under the cover of the post’s tanks, which were subsequently lost in the fighting, the remainder of the garrison withdrew to a sandbar in the middle of the Ngoi Lat River to make a final stand, while three artillery batteries from Rocher Notre-Dame poured fire into the post. As dawn broke the enemy disengaged leaving behind 450 dead. A smaller attack against the battery firebase at Xom Bu was also driven off.

After the fight at Tu Vu garrison, Groupes Mobiles 1 and 4, plus several units of the 1st Airborne Group were thrown into the Hoa Binh sector to beef up the French already there. As for the VM, they decided to change strategy. Rather than continuing attacks against French forts with their interlocking defensive fire, mines, artillery, and air support they hit French lines of communication, thereby choosing the terrain on which they would engage French forces. To this end, 165th and 209th Regiments of the 312th Div. were ordered by Colonel Tan to position themselves in the Ba Trai and in the area north of Ba Vi. Groupe Mobile 4 soon ran into heavy VM elements manning several section of the road between Yen Chu and Ap Da Chong. The French called in air support, but the VM held their positions. So, the 5eme BPC backed up by a squadron of M4 Sherman tanks from the Régiment Blindé Colonial d’Extrême Orient (RBCEO) was sent in to dislodge the VM, but the attack failed. By nightfall on 12 December, the road remained blocked. The 5eme BPC was ordered to pull back, but breaking contact proved to be difficult. A battalion from the 165th Regiment caught a company in an ambush, killing 34 paratroopers and wounding 66 others.

On December 13/14, the 312th Division’s pressure on the French relaxed, but not completely. For on the 13th, a company from the 2eme BPC was hit, losing 8 paras killed, 19 wounded and two missing. But this allowed GM 4 to pull back from Rocher Notre-Dame and advanced north to clear the Trung Ha-Yen Khoi region. While the Black River sector was reinforced with GM 1, Sous-groupement Blindé 1 (SGB), 1er BEP, and the 1er Batallion Blindé of the RBCEO. The Armored Subgroups (SGBs) were created in 1951 by de Lattre, they consisted of one tank squadron of four platoons, each of 3 tanks (M5A1 Stuart, later M24 Chaffees) and two M3 half-tracks, plus one to two half-track and trucked companies. In conjunction with GM 4 these forces were to conduct an envelopment operation designed to clear out the 312th Div. from the Ba Trai region and from the western slopes of the Ba Vi Mountains.

The commander of the Black River sector, Colonel Dodelier, decided to focus his initial effort on clearing the VM from the Ba Trai Forest. To do so, his forces needed to reach the Dan The bypass, while maintaining control of the road between Yen Cu and Ap Da Chong. This would cut off the 312th Division’s retreat across the Black River or south into the Ba Vi Mountains. To block their northern escape, SGB 1 was assigned and reinforced with a battalion from GM 4, to a blocking positions on the road between Cam Dai and Dan The. While a Paratrooper Task Force consisting of the 1er BEP, 2eme BPC and a tank platoon from the 1er Batallion, RBCEO were assigned to control the road between Yen Cu and Ap Da Chong. The North African units from GM 1 were ordered to clear the road along the eastern route into the Ba Trai region.

The northern and southern blocking forces took up their positions on 15 December, as GM 1 cleared the eastern approaches into the Ba Trai Forest, it ran into elements of the 312th Div. near Xom Doi. The North Africans were able to drive off the VM, only to run into them again at Hill 116, just a kilometer northwest of Xom Doi. Even though the 312th fought well, superior French firepower won the day and by evening GM 1 had taken the heights. Also a convoy was attacked west of Ao Trach, but it was able to drive off the enemy.

Elements from the Black River sector pushed on to reach the hills overlooking the river, while the paratroopers pushed on westward on the road to Ap Da Chong. By nightfall they were in control of the road. During the push the paratroopers encountered the VM, the firefight, requiring air and artillery support, left one French soldier dead and 26 wounded. Viet Minh movements throughout the night prompted French Intelligence to believe that the 312th was withdrawing west of the Black River.

With the Ba Trai Forest cleared and French blocking forces in position, attention was turned to the western slopes of the Ba Vi Moutains, where the VM still threatened Rocher Notre-Dame. On 17 December, the French launched a pincer attack. This time a task force composed of the 2eme BEP, 2eme Batallion/6eme Régiment Tirailleurs Marocain (RTM) and the 2eme Batallion/ 1er Régiment Tirailleurs Algerien (RTA), launched an attack west of the Ba Vi Mountains to clear the Lang Gy depression. The 2eme BEP moved south from Ap Da Chong---Yen Cu road to clear the heights under cover of the 3eme Batallion/ 4eme RTM and the 5eme BPC. The link-up between the two task forces took place without difficulty at 1500 hours, leaving the 1st BEP, 3/4eme RTM in control of the road to Ap Da Chong. The 2eme BEP took up positions on Hill 564, GM 1 along with SGB 1, were withdrawn from the sector.

Once the objectives had been taken, Col. Dodelier called on the airborne task force to re-established contact with the southern garrisons, which had been cut off since December 11. To accomplish the mission, the 1er and 2eme BEP, the Moroccans of the 3/4eme RTM and the French and Vietnamese troops of Commando 35 were sent. On 19 December, with the 1eme BEP leading the way from Ap Da Chong and the 2eme BEP from Hill 564, the task force swept south to link up with Rocher Notre-Dame. VM resistance was light. The two BEPs continued with a reconnaissance in force into Xom Sui depression until the 20th, recovering the dead left behind 10 days earlier by the 1er BPC.

With the area cleared, the French considered the battle to be over. So the airborne task force battle staff, the 2eme BEP, 1er BPC and the 3/4eme RTM were returned to Hanoi. Giap, however, ordered the 308th Div. into the Black River area to relieve the 312th Div. During the early morning hours of 21 December, the 36th and 102nd Regiments had moved back into the Ba Trai Forest. The French were surprised when at 1100 hours Commando 35 stumbled across a VM bivouac south of the Yen Cu---Ap Da Chong road. An hour later, a patrol from the 5eme BPC ran into a heavily armed VM company on Hill 82. Under heavy fire, the paras managed to break contact, but were re-engaged at 1700 hours, this time requiring air support to break contact and withdraw. The next day, Commando 35 and 5eme BPC were attacked simultaneously at Hill 564 and 82, respectively. Both units would have been overrun if it were not for the air support the men received. To the east of Luing Phu and Tach Xa, a large reconnaissance patrol was ambushed and legionnaires from the 1er BEP were ambushed about 3km south of Xom Bu. The VM force they encounter was so big that it required two M4 Sherman tank platoons and fighter-bomber support for them to break contact.

In the face of this new threat, General Raoul Salan, de Lattre’s successor (de Lattre had returned to Paris suffering from advance cancer in November 1951, he died on 11 January) redeployed the airborne task force battle staff, and the 2eme BEP. He also sent in the 1er Batallion Parachutiste Vietnamien (BPVN) and two additional artillery batteries, and reinforced GM 1. The 1er BPVN jumped one company into Rocher Notre-Dame on 23 December. The remainder of the battalion jumped into Ap Phu Tho on the following day.

As the 1er BPVN jumped into Ap Phu Tho, an airborne task force, consisting of the 5eme BPC, the 1er and 2eme BEP, the 2eme Batallion/ 1er Régiment Tirailleurs Algerien (RTA) and two platoons of M4 Sherman tanks, was ordered to counter-attack the VM’s 36th and 102nd Regiments and to cast them out from the sector. To do so, the French planned a pincer movement by the two BEPs around Hill 82, while the 5eme BPC covered them from the southeast. The 1er BEP encounter light resistance, but the 2eme BEP ran into heavy fire at Hill 61 and then again at Hill 57. Under the VM’s fire the Legionnaires were pushed to the east. When the 2/1er RTA moved in to reinforce them, they were also hit. The VM then broke through to the road running north from Yen Cu to Cam Dai. While the 2eme BEP regrouped at Hill 61 under the cover of close air support, the Algerians also regrouped near Yen Cu. The 2eme BEP suffered 12 dead and 31 wounded, the 2/1er RTA suffered half of that. The French counted 300 VM killed.

In the face of continuing VM resistance, it became clear that a major offensive was needed. Col. Dodelier ordered his units to hold their position while he launched French-led Vietnamese reconnaissance units into the Ba Vi and Ba Trai regions. From 25 December 1951 to 4 January 1952, these reconnaissance units pinpointed various units of the 308th Division. These were hit with artillery fire and close air support, while the French reinforced their forces and planned an attack designed to draw off the VM forces that could reinforce the sector.

‘Operation Nenuphar’ kicked off on 4 January, with the airborne task force, GM 1 and 4. The paratroopers took up blocking positions between Yen Cu and Ap Da Chong while GM 4 attacked to the south of Ngoc Nhi. GM 1 supported this with a diversionary attack against Tach Xa. On 6 January, the airborne battle staff backed up by the 1st BPC, launched a deception operation in the VM’s staging depot area of Viet Tri in hopes of forcing VM reserves to assemble around Phu Lu. Nenuphar provided the French with additional tactical success in the Ba Trai Forest, but the VM remained firmly anchored in the area. The VM strategy along the Black River was making the sector untenable. Convoys were finding it harder to reach Hoa Binh, which was the reason of the Black River garrisons were there in the first place.

Salan could only hope the casualties inflicted on the VM would give his forces a chance to retake and hold those areas once the enemy had withdrawn. ‘Operation Violette’ was therefore created as an offensive. From 7–9 January, French forces would seek to destroy VM forces dug in on the slopes of the Ba Vi, while the garrison at Rocher Notre-Dame, Hill 30, Xom Bu, and Ap Da Chong were withdrawn under cover of their attack. The Black River sector with its remaining bases would then be reorganized and place under control of the Son Tay sector.

On 7 January, as the 1er and 2eme BEPs, 5eme BPC, and the 4/7eme Algerian Tirailleurs secured the roads between Ba Trai Forest and Ba Vi Mountain, the 2/1er and 2/6eme Moroccan Tirailleurs and the 1er BPVN attack VM forces dug in around Ba Vi. By nightfall, the garrison at Rocher Notre-Dame and Hill 30 had withdrawn and regrouped at Yen Cu, the next day the garrison from Xom Bu and Ap Da Chong had joined them. The French had now withdrawn from their posts along the Black River, except for the bridgehead on the Red River junction. On 9 January the covering forces were withdrawn, the operation was declared a success. With the French removed the Viet Minh moved in, that on 12 January the VM closed its offensive when they wiped out an entire river convoy, which was attempting to resupply forces at Hoa Binh. The Black River was no longer a French option to reinforce Hoa Binh, as for the VM, had gained a foothold, Giap predicted that Hoa Binh would fall prior the Lunar New Year. The French also abandoned the Black River as a supply route and turned to RC6.

Following the Black River victory, Giap turned his attention to Route Coloniale 6. Neither Hoa Binh nor RC6 had been quite throughout the fighting along the Black River, Giap had limited his men to spoiling attacks against the ten isolated garrisons and ambushed convoys. That changed in January 1952, as the 312th Div. redeployed to RC6 and Giap ordered in reinforcements to fill up the depleted ranks of the 304th and 308th divisions.

Route Coloniale 6 started in Hanoi and ran west, where it was flat and secure until it reached Xuan Mai. From Xuan Mai the road traversed a forested plateau criss-crossed with many ravines until west of Mo Thon, where it cut through a limestone massif filled with valleys and cliffs. From Dong Ben, RC6 cut through a narrow valley dominated by steep sides covered with dense vegetation, until it emerged to run parallel to the Black River between Xom Pheo and Ben Ngoc. At Ben Ngoc convoys ferried across the Black River to Hoa Binh. From Xuan to Hoa Binh the VM would attack the convoys.

The RC6 sector contained the 3/1er RTM, 3/13eme DBLE, 1er Tabors, 8eme BPC and Commando 19 manning posts scattered along RC6. The 19eme Compagnie de Genie (engineer) plus two artillery batteries of the 64eme Artillerie were stationed at Hoa Binh, while a mobile force consisting of the 1er Régiment de Chasseurs à Cheval (RCC), 8eme Régiment de Spahis Algérien (RSA), and an armored car platoon from the Régiment d’Infanterie Coloniale de Maroc (RICM) moved between posts.

Near the end of the battle for the Black River, French Intelligence noted an increase of VM regulars in the RC6 area. On 30 December, their information proved to be correct when the VM opened a new offensive in the RC6 sector. The post at Trung Du was attacked at midnight, followed by a long night of combat. By early morning the VM’s 9th Regiment, 304th Division withdrew leaving behind 160 dead, the French lost 4 men and suffered 31 wounded. The VM then aimed for the French hill position at Xom Pheo, with three battalions from the 308th Div. The post was 6km northeast of Hoa Binh and it was defended by the 3/13eme DBLE. On the night of 30/31 December, the 88th Regiment probed the garrison for weak points. At midnight on 8 January, the VM conducted a full-scale attack on the post, while diversionary attacks were mounted against Trung Du, Dong Ben, and An Lap. The VM opened up with a mortar and artillery barrage, followed by a massive assault, the Legionnaires opened up with everything they had to beat back the massive human wave. In about a half an hour the VM had gained control of two positions while a third fought for its life and won. The Legionnaires then counter-attack and recapture their former positions. Sometime during the early morning hours, the fighting stopped (only temporary), the VM called out for the Legionnaires to surrender or die. The Legionnaires answered back by calling in airstrikes and artillery. The VM attacked again. The Legionnaires fought like wild men to hold the post. The VM seeing that they could not take the post withdrew at about 0600 hours, leaving behind over 800 dead. The 13eme DBLE suffered 11 dead, 35 wounded, 3 missing.

That same night, VM sappers infiltrated the defenses at Hoa Binh and destroy two 105mm howitzers, prompting an airborne drop by the 2eme BPC to reinforce the camp on 8 January. Unlike previous drop, the air transports were met with anti-aircraft fire at both Hoa Binh and Xom Pheo, where a resupply drop took place. Eight aircraft were damaged and four were shot down. Hoa Binh was taking the appearance of a camp under siege.

Although the attacks had failed, the next day a major part of the VM forces occupied the hills overlooking Kem Pass. During the night of the 9th, the VM launched heavy assaults against all posts in the Hoa Binh sector and attacked a mobile battalion----annihilating it. They then withdrew to destroy the road. On 11 January, RC6 was shut down. They were now able to surround Hoa Binh. The French now fell back on aerial resupply, while reinforcements were pull in from other areas to help drive out the VM.

With the death of de Lattre and Salan’s appointment to commander-in-chief of all French forces in Indochina, responsibility for the Hoa Binh campaign now rested on Gen. Gonzales de Linares. Given the limitations of the forces available to him, he could only see one way to take back RC6, and that was piece by piece clearing each sub-sector as he went.

The road clearing operation commenced on 10 January 1952. The units assigned to this mission were the 1er and 2eme BEPs, and 2/1er RTM, they had to clear to road between Xuan Mai and Ao Trach of the 9th and 57th Regiments, 304th Division. By 11 January the task force had cleared as far as Mo Thon with the assistance from sector troops from Chuc Son. From Mo Thon, the task force commander, Col. de Rocquigny, ordered the 1er BEP to push into the Suc Sich region while the 2eme BEP moved towards Hill 202 and the 2/1er RTM pushed along RC 6. Thick vegetation prevented the 2eme BEP from keeping to the time time, but the 1er BEP cleared the northern side of the road, allowing the Moroccans of the 2/1er RTM to reach Hill 54 by 1730 hours without running into any serious enemy resistance.

While the task force moved west, two companies from the 8eme BPC and a company from the 3/1er RTM moved east to link up with them at Ao Trach. As these three companies moved through Kem Pass, they were ambushed by the 57th Regiment and driven back with 25 killed and 25 wounded. They were then reinforced by the 7eme BPC and another battery from the 64th Artillery was placed at Xuan Mai. The 1er BEP was ordered to dig in on the northern heights of Mo Son, the 21er RTM at Suc Sich and the 2eme BEP at Mo Thon and Hillock 125 for the night.

On the 12th, as the 1er BEP and 2/1er RTM cleared both sides of the road from Bai Lang, the 3/1er RTM, 2eme BEP, and Commandos 5 and 7 provided security along the route from Mo Thon to Hill 54. The 7eme BPC, unfortunately, ran into two VM battalions at Hill 202. Heavy fighting broke out and the paratroopers were forced to dig in for the night. As darkness fell, the VM hit their southern and western flanks. Miraculously, the paratroopers suffered light casualties of two dead and 11 wounded, while the VM left behind 120 dead. The next day, the 2eme BEP reinforced the 7eme BPC at Hill 202, while mobile elements pushed forward along the road to reach Ao Trach. With this section of the road cleared, control of the road was passed from the 1er BEP to Sous-groupement Blindé 2.

To clear the VM from Dong Ben to Xom Pheo required several stages. The first step was to re-establish communications on the road between Ao Trach and Xom Pheo by controlling the heights of the Dong Ben depression, Hillock 4 and the rock bluffs known as Quarry Heights, all held by strong VM forces. Between January 14 and 17, the Hoa Binh sector’s defenses were reorganized in order to release more units for mobile operations. One operation consisted of GM 1 securing the road between Xuan Mai, while the paratrooper task force secured the road between Bai Lang and Kem Pass, and RC 6 sector troops between Kem Pass and Ao Trach.

On 18 January, an attack by the 1er BEP, 8eme BPC, 2/1er RTM, a Goum (company) of the 1er Tabors, and the 19eme Compagnie de Genie was stopped cold at Hillock 4. As the 1er BEP moved forward on the right flank, they came under heavy VM fire, losing 15 dead, 48 wounded and two missing. The 60eme Goum of the 1er Tabors tried to reinforce the para-legionnaires but became pinned down under the limestone cliffs while the 8eme BPC engaged the VM at Dong Giang on the left flank of the French line of advance. As for resuppling Hoa Binh, French command decided to attempt a truck convoy to see if RC6 was in French hands. The convoy that reached Hoa Binh, itself, had taken 11 days to cover a mere 40km (25miles), sustaining heavy casualties en route, especially at Kem Pass on RC6 which was in VM hands. Further resupply by truck was then halted until the entire road was in French hands.

In the face of mounting casualties, the French troops were ordered to cease all operation along RC6, pull back and dig in. Two days later, reinforced by the 7eme BPC and a massive artillery barrage, the French renewed the attack. The 7eme BPC had taken Hilllock 4 and Dong Giang by 1340 hours. French attention now turned to Quarry Heights and the Ba Xet spur, which looked over the Dong Ben plain. Here they hoped to draw the VM into a series of attacks to wear down their forces. On 21 January, the French installed solid positions between Ao Trach and Hillock 4, and on the 22nd, 8eme BPC was sent out, reinforced by a platoon M24 Chaffee tanks, to bait the VM into an attack. The 8eme BPC pushed the VM east of Quarry Heights, giving French artillery and close air support a chance to inflict heavy casualties. After that, the 8eme BPC withdrew to Ao Trach.

On 23 January, the 2/1er RTM replaced the paratroopers, who then prepared for an attack on Quarry Heights to sweep the VM from the area and establish an outpost. On the 24th, the 7eme and 8eme BPCs advanced on both sides of RC6 while the 1er BEP kept pace along the road itself. At 1400 hours, as the 1er BEP approached Bridge 15, the 66th Regiment, 304th Div. hit the para-legionnaires with a close in rush attack. Legionnaires and Viet Minh regulars became mixed in hand-to-hand combat, limiting French artillery fire to VM regulars moving in from the north and southwest. The 66th Regiment’s attack was beaten back, but they remained entrenched in Quarry Heights region. When it became clear that the French could not take the heights before nightfall, the paratrooper task force commander, Colonel de Rocquigny, opted to pull back his forces from the area while casualties were light and prepare for a counter-attack. The 1er BEP suffered 5 dead and 33 wounded for an estimated 800 VM dead. Colonel Gilles, who commanded the sub-sector that Quarry heights was in, ordered his troops to conduct a relief in place with the paratroopers while they received GM 1and the 2/1er Algerien Tirailleurs as reinforcements to conduct a large-scale attack to seize and hold the area around Quarry Heights.

‘Operation Melinite’, on 28-29 January, managed just to do that. The Algerians from the 2/1er RTA took Quarry Heights, while the 4/7eme RTA reached the Ba Xet spur. The 4/7eme was thrown back from the spur by a determined VM counter-attack, but the 2/1er RTA held on to the heights despite the best efforts of a battalion from the 9th Regiment, 304th Division. Control of Quarry Heights should have given the French tactical control of RC6, but while the engineers and infantry set to work clearing the road, Giap was repositioning his men for a new series of attacks. So, on 30 January 1952, the VM went on the offensive throughout the RC6 sector. Fighting was heaviest at Suc Sich, where the 16eme Compagnie, 8eme BPC was overrun by two battalions. Luckily for the 16eme, casualties were light, 4 killed and 17 wounded, while the paratroopers killed 101 and captured 14 men before driving off the rest. Once again, French artillery and close air support had proved crucial.

Although the French now controlled RC6 and still held on to Hoa Binh, Salan came to the conclusion that the tail was wagging the dog. Having committed one third of the forces that had proved to be successful in the Red River Delta operations in 1951, the French discovered that these forces were unable to contribute any substantial firepower to the Hoa Binh operation. Also, while the Black River was still nominally French, convoys could no longer use it. It had also taken 20 days of fighting to open 40 km of RC6. Worse yet, by keeping the road open it was costing the French far more men than it was worth. True that French controlled extended from Hanoi as far as Xuan Mai, and from Don Goi to Hoa Binh French outposts constituted a series of islands in a hostile terrestrial sea, which tied down over 20,000 men to these posts. As for the VM, even though they could not go through them they were able to move around them. Had the French developed a Vietnamese army earlier on, Salan might have had the extra manpower he required to have total control of the area and being able to send French troops to other parts of the country to fight the VM. But with the state of that fledging army in 1952, he had to rely on Legionnaires, paratroops, colonial infantry, and North Africans to keep a single line of communication open enabling Salan to sent these troops else where.

Route Coloniale 6 had demonstrated the dangers of the situation, and Salan needed his elite troops for the defense of the Tonkin Delta. When French Intelligence reported at the end of January that Giap had temporarily withdrawn the 304th, 308th, and 312th divisions to undergo rest and refitting for another offensive against Hoa Binh and that the 316th and 320th divisions were infiltrating the Red River Delta, Salan decided to cut his losses and withdraw. On 5 February, he ordered his staff to draw up a plan for the evacuation of Hoa Binh, releasing much needed troops for operations in the T’ai Highlands and the Red River Delta. To begin the withdrawal operation from Hoa Binh, Gen. Salan commenced Operation Crachin (Spittle) on 16 February 1952. This operation was a diversion conducted by the Groupe d’Escadrons Amphibies units (GEA) of the 1er Regiment Etranger Cavalerie and some companies of the 2eme BEP in the Red River area between Nam Dinh and Thai Binh. While the 10eme BPCP and the 3eme Regiment de Tirailleurs Marocain operated in the Van Lang sector. The Legionnaires of the 1er REC, the paratrooper of the 10eme BPCP and 2eme BEP and the Moroccans of the 3eme RTM conducted several military maneuvers in the VM’s 320th Division rear. This operation was for Giap to sent reinforcements from Hoa Binh to help the 320th defend its rear in the Red River Delta from the French, enabling French troops at Hoa Binh to escape. After Operation Crachin, six other operations were conducted throughout the Red River Delta over the next few weeks. The GEA unit of the 1er REC were formed in 1948 and consisted of M29C Weasels (to the French, ‘Crabs’) and LVT-4 Alligators.

Once the VM had sent reinforcements to the Red River Delta, the French were able to regain better control of RC6 from Hanoi to Hoa Binh. Salan was now able to begin the second phase of the withdrawal, dubbed Operation Arc-en-ceil (rainbow). The French withdrawal began on 14 February at 1900 hours and included a temporary opening of the Black River all the way to Hoa Binh. Throughout the night massive amounts of supplies were moved and as dawn broke (23rd), French combat troops, under the umbrella of artillery and air support began to cross the river and fall back onto Xom Pheo towards Hanoi. The VM soon realized that an evacuation was taking place and from then on the withdrawal became a running battle as French units leaped frogged back down RC6 to cross the de Lattre Line (the French defensive line established in 1950). By February 24 the 13eme DBLE (rear-guard) fought it way out and crossed the de Lattre Line at Xuan Mai. Although no one action had resulted in insupportable casualties, continuous losses had made the Hoa Binh offensive almost as costly as the operation along the Cao Bang Ridge in 1950. The French had suffered 436 killed, 2,060 wounded and 458 missing in action. While the VM suffered 3,500 killed, some 7,500 to 8,000 wounded and 307 were taken prisoners.

After the ‘successful’ French withdrawal from Hoa Binh, which Gen. Salan claimed had checked the advances of three VM divisions attempting to break into the delta, the onset of the rainy season halted further VM operation of any substance. During the monsoon the French were occupied with clearing VM infiltrations from behind their own lines. As the flow of Chinese aid increased, Giap used the lull in the fighting to prepare for the next offensive. By midsummer 1952 he had raised some 110,000 regular troops, 75,000 regional troops, and up to 120,000 village militia. As the rainy season drew to an end, the VM prepared to launch an offensive, which would hopefully bring them the strategic freedom to advance into and out of Laos.

Salan, for his part, would again draw the VM away from the Red River Delta and into a similar campaign at Na San. Giap would respond, but Salan was wise enough to withdraw before the weather turned against him. Unfortunately for the French troops, Salan and his staff would leave Indochina, to be replace by a crop of new faces, General Henri Navarre and his staff, whom had not learned the lessons of Hoa Binh. By the time of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, most of the commanders and staffs who remembered the lessons of Hoa Binh were all in the Viet Minh.

Further Readings:
Benard Falls, Streets Without Joy, Pall Mall Press, 1961.
Paul Gaujac, Histoire des Parachutistes Francais, SPL, 1975.
Edgar O’balance, The Indochina War 1945-1954, Faber & Faber, 1964.
Henri-Jean Loustau, Les Deux batallions et les Derniers Combats d’Indochine.

On 11 October, using the cover of the night and the dense canopy of the jungle, three VM divisions, the 308th, 312th, 316th, advanced in secrecy, trying not to alert the French of the imminent offensive. They advanced in three columns along a 64km (40mi) front and crossed the Red River toward the garrisons on the Nghia Lo Ridge. The 308th aimed for the Nghia Lo garrison, itself. While the 312th pushed towards Gia Hoi and the 316th towards Van Yen. Meanwhile the 148th Regiment swept westward in an arc to the north of the VM front, and the 176th and 36th Regiments were left in reserve protecting passes at the Red River.

On 15 October advance units of the 312th surrounded and attacked the French garrison at Gia Hoi. The French reaction was immediate. On the 16th, 700 paratroopers of the 6eme Bataillon Parachutiste de Choc (shock paratrooper) were dropped at the French post at Tu Le 24km (15mi) northwest of Gia Hoi and moved towards the beleaguered garrison. The 6eme soon made contact with the VM but successfully forced their way through the to the post. On the night 17/18th the garrison was ordered to evacuate Gia Hoi, the post at Lang Chang was also told to evacuate and link up with the evacuees of Gia Hoi. They were then installed at the Tu Le post, which was ordered to evacuate on the 19th after the fall of Nghia Lo on the 17th. Gen. Salan believed that this offensive was merely a diversionary attack designed to draw troops away from the delta defenses---he had no idea of the massed VM forces were preparing to crush the French posts along the Nghia Lo Ridge.

Salan was not to remain deceived for long. On the night of the 17th, after a barrage of 120mm mortar fire, a regiment of the 308th moved against Nghia Lo. Successive waves were beaten back by the French defenses, but when the perimeter was breached VM troops flooded in through the gap and the position was quickly taken. After the collapse of Nghia Lo, the ridge positions to either side fell quickly. The French high command, realizing the situation, gave orders to the 6eme BPC to fight a rearguard action in order to allow the French troops to withdraw. The paras spread out in order to take on as much of the VM force as possible. The VM 312th disengaged from contact with the 6eme, and then virtually destroyed the paras as they pulled back, during an action at Muon Chen post on 20/21 October. The defensive action had, allowed the rest of the French evacuees to reach to French line along the Black River.

The VM advance stopped when the various divisions encamped, facing the last of the French defenses along the Black River protecting the Laotian border, in order to establish effective supply lines back to the Viet Bac area. But, the 312th continued to move towards Dien Bien Phu, the 308th stopped just short of Na San, and the 316th halted near Ba Lay. As for the surviving 280 men of the 6eme BPC and its commander Cdt. Marcel Bigeard were hailed as heroes in Hanoi.

The French were now being forced to take the defensive, and the high command was desperate to find a method of regaining the initiative and putting pressure on the VM. Gen. Salan drew up plans for a counter-offensive, which would draw the VM away from the Laotian border and drive deep into the heart of Viet Minh territory. With three of Giap five divisions away from home ground, Salan hoped that by advancing along the line of the Clear River he would be able to cut their supply lines, reoccupy the Nghia Lo Ridge, and protect the Laotian border. Furthermore, the French commander hoped that the destruction of stores, workshops, and supply dumps would destroy local Viet Minh credibility.

The plan was for the operation to take place in three stages. With a bridgehead set up across the Red River, the force at Phu Tho would expand to link up with the force advancing from Viet Tri. The two forces would advance along RC2 where they would link up with 1st Airborne Group. They would then coordinate with the dinassaut units.

So, on 29 October ‘Operation Lorraine’ was launched. The force of 30,000 troops was the largest yet mustered for an operation in Indochina. It consisted of four Groupe Mobiles, two Sous-Groupements Blindes (SGB), a paratroop group, dinassaut no. 12, and numerous detachments of artillery. In 1951 de Lattre organized the SGBs which consisted of a tank squadron of four platoons, each three of tanks (M5A1 Stuart & M24 Chaffee) two M3 halftracks, and a lorried infantry company. The force was split into two spearheads with one setting up a bridgehead across the Red River and advancing towards Phu Tho, the second one setting out from near Viet Tri. By 7 November, despite opposition from the VM, the two French forces had linked up on RC2. The next stage was the advance against Phu Doan. On the 9th, 2,350 paratroopers of the 3eme and 5eme BPC, and 1er and 2eme BEP (3eme BPC, 1er and 2eme BEP were later sent to defend Na San near the Laotian border) were dropped into the Phu Doan area, and took the town of Phu Doan with little difficulty. As this happened, the SGB units thundered up RC2 in order to consolidate the position. The supplies that were discovered at Phu Doan, were a considerable surprise to the French; not only were there large quantities of American war material but also Russia, which they took like truck, and destroyed such as 250 tons of munitions and 1,500 weapons.

Once a base had been established at Phu Doan, armored patrols then advanced further north towards Phu Yen Bink and Tuyen Quang, where blocking positions were set up in preparation for a possible VM counter-attack. Now came the problems. The operation had been based upon the assumption that Giap would panic when he saw the possible isolation of the three divisions moving on Loas. But while Giap was not certain of the size of the French force. He knew that its long thin line of communication was extremely vulnerable to ambush and guerrilla assaults. Thus, Giap decided to commit only two of his regular regiment, one from the 316th the other from the 308th, to harass the French forces; the rest of the three divisions were to remain in situ on the Black River. Furthermore, Giap ordered the 320th Div. (south of the Red R.) and the 304th Div. (north of the de Lattre Line), to operate against French units in the Red River Delta, in order to force Salan into a withdrawal.

The French advance, meanwhile, had been stopped at Phu Yen Bink and the problem of maintaining a force along a 160km (100mi) front was beginning to show. Combined with this was the fact that the most forward French units had encountered little enemy opposition; their captured territory was proving both expensive and of no real value. Operation Lorraine had achieved no real success and on 14 November Salan ordered a withdrawal. During the withdrawal, on the 17th, when the two regular VM regiment were in position, the VM ambushed Groupe Moblies 1 and 4 at a pass known as Chan Muoung. Under a barrage of heavy fire the GMs sustained heavy casualties and it was only later in the day that the other two GMs maneuvered and counter-attacked driving off the Viet Minh. Over the next week or so, a constant running battle between the withdrawing French and VM guerrillas developed. The end result was that by the time the force reached the relative security of the de Lattre Line, some 1,200 French casualties had been incurred.

One encouraging episode of the operation was the establishment by airlift of a strong garrison at Na San, which had fought off several major attacks at the end of November, beginning of December 1952. Even though, it was resupplied, reinforced, resupplied again, it was evacuated by air. To some military leaders this success seemed to offer a way to lure Giap between the anvil of a strongly fortified ‘airhead’ far from his secure bases, and the hammer of French firepower. But still, by the end of 1952, the French had failed to bring Giap to battle on terms of their own choosing, while the VM commander had succeeded in moving troops towards and into Laos. Measures were then called for if the French were not to surrender the initiative completely. The concept of a ‘fortified airhead’ and the wish to counter the continuing threat to Laos, led Salan replacement Gen. Henri Navarre to make the fatal decision to garrison the distant valley of Dien Bien Phu, with a weakly supported infantry division, dependent on a 300km (200mi) air bridge to the airfields around Hanoi.
 
I was always amazed at the number of combat jumps the French made during those years. Until helicopters, it was the only option they had. As we flew the country side I would see the remains of those French highway forts and really feel sorry for the PB's that had to man them. It's the old addage that any fortress can become a prison ringing true.

Their experience shows the need for overwhelming force in a guerrilla war. You have to be there when they wake up, when the eat lunch and in bed with 'em at night. We were pretty much doing just that by 1969, but by then the gov't had failed to convince the public we could win. I am developing a theory that the media, not the military, defined the victory conditions of the Vietnam war and the military fell into the trap of not clarifying the objective. I think this has been a feature of almost all wars the U.S. has fought, at least until the war develops a momentum of its own and the media can no longer speculate "what if."
 

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