Thursday, July 3, 2014

The First Indochina War, Part II

Continued from Part I

Gen. Nguyen Van Hinh
As the war dragged on, manpower continued to be the biggest advantage for the VietMinh and the biggest problem for the French. The succession of governments in Paris refused to allow conscription, so the French army in Indochina was an all-volunteer force consisting of colonial regiments, airborne soldiers and the famous French Foreign Legion, which included at this time a large number of World War II German army veterans, a fact the VietMinh propagandists had a field day with. In response to this crisis, with the pressing of the French commander, General Jean-Marie de Lattre, it was decided to form Vietnamese units to act in a supporting role to the French. The more racially-minded soldiers began referring to this policy as "jaunissement" or the "yellowing" of the French army. Units were formed and expanded into the Armee Nationale Vietnamienne under the leadership of the French army veteran, General Nguyen Van Hinh. However, due to the political situation, even with conscription, it was difficult to induce Vietnamese men to serve in this army. They were also often given sub-standard equipment and were often poorly trained. The French also turned to auxiliary units such as the private armies led by the religious sects of the Cao Dai, Hoa Hao, some of the Catholic regions and the Binh Xuyen gang of Saigon. All of these forces served the primary purpose of holding areas against the VietMinh in order to free up more French units for offensive operations.

In October of 1949 however, things took a turn for the worse when Chairman Mao Tse-tung defeated President Chiang Kai-shek and proclaimed the People's Republic of China from the main gate of the Forbidden City in Peking. The Chinese could now devote more attention and material to helping the VietMinh take control of Indochina. The French gave further assurances to the Bao Dai regime and also recognized the independence of the Kingdoms of Laos and Cambodia, whose monarchies had remained popular and intact. Soon, there were Communist insurgencies spreading into these countries as well, all of them direct descendants of Ho Chi Minh's original Indochinese Communist Party. These events emboldened General Giap who decided that the time had come to stop raiding villages and ambushing small patrols and take on the French in conventional warfare. By 1950 his forces included five light and one heavy infantry divisions. Throughout early to mid 1950 Giap began hitting French outposts along the Chinese border. The United States, although primarily occupied with the Communist invasion of Korea, began sending France millions of dollars to support the war in Indochina.

Gen. Carpentier & Emp. Bao Dai
French commander, General Marcel Carpentier developed a strategy aimed at destroying Giap's base of supply in the Mekong and Red River deltas, but the results were mixed. As soon as the French withdrew into the fortified towns at night, the VietMinh would return, and as more French positions were destroyed along the Chinese border, the greater the flow of supplies Ho Chi Minh could receive. From September to October the French lost 6,000 men to these attacks, heavy losses for an army always so heavily outnumbered, as well as thousands of rifles, mortars, machine guns, trucks and material of every kind, which was taken by the VietMinh. In December though, a breath of fresh air came with the arrival of a new High Commissioner and Commander in Chief in Indochina: General Jean-Marie de Lattre de Tassigny. General de Lattre immediately called for a more offensive spirit, and devised a strategy to use air support and fast-moving assault teams to attack VietMinh concentrations as they appeared. As a historical note, this also marked the first use of napalm in Vietnam when the French used it in an attack on Communist forces in Tien Yen.

The French commander decided to try to fence-in the VietMinh and destroy them in their northern strongholds. To accomplish this, he built a series of fortified towers around the Red River delta region from the Gulf of Tonkin to Hanoi. This series of fortifications, known as the "De Lattre Line" was defended by Vietnamese troops, while French forces were deployed to strike at VietMinh targets within this enclosed zone. It was a strategy that seems to have had some effect as Ho Chi Minh soon declared the formation of the Lao Dong Party, preaching an almost religious fanaticism for Communism. When Giap attacked Vinh Yen in January, 1951 General de Lattre hit back hard, this time smashing the Communist forces, inflicting heavy losses and forcing them to retreat. Estimates of VietMinh troops killed or wounded reached as high as 17,000.

Gen. de Lattre & Emp. Bao Dai
Throughout early 1951, using the combined defensive line and swift counter-attack strategy of General de Lattre, despite repeated attacks by Giap against heavily outnumbered garrisons the French were, quite frankly, kicking butt and taking names. Every post the VietMinh hit was successfully defended and French air strikes and counter-attacks exacted a heavy death toll on the Communists. In late March Giap attacked Mao Khe, near Haiphong, to which the French responded with a heavy, coordinated series of air strikes and naval bombardment from the coast, the VietMinh lost a further 3,000 men. The following month he hit the Day River sector southeast of Hanoi and was again met by a heavy response of French firepower from the air and their river flotilla resulting in 10,000 casualties for Giap. De Lattre counter attacked, cutting Giap's supplies and leaving the VietMinh in a desperate position. Some Party leaders called for Giap's removal due to the recent series of humiliating defeats, but as Giap has already been so propagandized by the Communist leadership, Nguyen Binh was forced to take the blame in order to save the reputations of Ho and Giap. For France, the only low point was the loss of the commanding general's only son Bernard de Lattre. Bloodied and unsuccessful, Giap was forced to retreat from the Red River delta.

As 1951 marched on, the French requested increases in aid from the United States, urging them to stand strong in the global crusade against Communism. In October, Giap was once again bloodily defeated at Nghia Lo thanks to the timely arrival of French airborne troops. The VietMinh, who had used their knowledge of the ground to out-maneuver the French, were finally being outdone by air mobility, something that would come back later in a big way with the American "Air Cavalry". However, the French war effort, and Bao Dai's "State of Vietnam" continued to suffer from bad press, some liberal American politicians even denounced the Eisenhower administration's policy of supporting it as being a "desperate effort of the French regime to hang on to the remnants of an empire". Opposition to the war was also growing in France itself where the socialist/communist movement was quite strong. Acts by French leftists to sabotage their own war effort were not uncommon. More bad news followed as De Lattre was overextended and suffered some hard losses at the hands of Giap, who nevertheless withdrew his forces again immediately after the battle.

Gen. Raoul Salan
Only a few days later De Lattre died of cancer and was replaced by General Raoul Salan. By this time, French losses had passed 90,000 for all forces and the public, despite recent victories, was becoming increasingly impatient with the war. The situation was not helped when General Giap launched a series of guerilla attacks on French posts, again avoiding formal battles (wherein he had a bad record) and concentrated on harassing actions, in a move that would be often repeated later, playing upon opposition to the war in France and using their impatience to boost the morale of his own troops with the image that their enemies were becoming tired of the war and would soon surrender. 1952 saw both sides gearing up, with the VietMinh increasing propaganda campaigns to boost their numbers and terrorist attacks to demoralize their enemies. France brought in more US aid, while America was becoming more and more skeptical about the outcome of the conflict. The French attempted a major operation, but Giap refused to come out to fight and it was eventually canceled. 1953 saw the advancement of the "Domino Theory" by President Eisenhower and more promises from America, but a continued bloody stalemate on the ground.

Gen. Navarre & Emp. Bao Dai
In May, command of the French forces went to veteran General Henri Navarre, who had little extra support, but who promised to regain the initiative and take offensive action against the VietMinh, first through seek and destroy missions, which did have some success. Yet, the war was being undermined at home by the French Communist Party. This is in spite of the fact that late 1953 saw some of the worst atrocities to date carried out by the Vietnamese Communists as part of their "land reform" program, which resulted in farcical trials followed by the massacre of thousands of Vietnamese landlords, traditional elites and virtually anyone opposed to the Communist Party. This campaign lasted into 1956 and cost the lives of about 15,000 Vietnamese at the hands of the "People's Courts". Ho Chi Minh later admitted that some of his people were 'over zealous'. The French had also begun to negotiate with the VietMinh leadership, and it soon became clear to everyone that the next campaign would decide the fate of Indochina. In typical form, General Navarre went for the attack, outlining "Operation Castor". He built a fortified airbase at Dien Bien Phu, a hamlet on the remote mountainous border region with Laos. He planned to use this base as a pivot-point for combined land and air attacks to sweep the VietMinh out of their jungle strongholds in one massive engagement.

Franco-Viet forces at Dien Bien Phu
However, much to the surprise of the French, Giap moved in rapidly and was able, by sheer force of human numbers, to move his artillery up the mountains and begin the climactic 57-day Siege of Dien Bien Phu. The French had only 10,000 men to Giap's 45,000. Bad weather deprived the French of their airpower and the VietMinh concentrated on taking out their airstrips, named after the girlfriends of their commander, Colonel Christian de Castries. The battle was the stuff of legend. The French were shelled relentlessly, deprived of all necessities, but determined to resist to the last. There is the story of the VietMinh soldier who, during a wave attack, hurled his body across a French machine gun to save his comrades. Then there is the story of the musical counter-attack. Legionnaires charged singing the song of the Foreign Legion "La Lune est claire", but the Vietnamese units supporting them, having no history of their own, charged against their communist countrymen singing the French national anthem.

communist victory parade
Despite urgent requests, Eisenhower refused to use U.S. forces to relieve the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu without the cooperation of the British who would not give it. On May 7, 1954 the French finally surrendered Dien Bien Phu, though not all were having it as the artillery commander declared he was "completely dishonored" and shot himself. It was a gruesome but gallant end to the First Indochina War, which had been both of those things. With this loss, France all but gave up on Vietnam at the Geneva Conference and made the crucial step of dealing with the VietMinh leadership as a legitimate government. It was agreed to divide the country, disarm the south and allow for elections at a later date to determine the national government. The United States government refused to sign on for the same reasons that the State of Vietnam, under Emperor Bao Dai, refused; it was simply a delay of an eventual communist takeover with more than half the country in communist hands and in whose area all people would be certain to vote communist on pain of death. France washed its hands of Southeast Asia and the U.S. prepared to take over the job of fighting the Red Menace in Vietnam. However, Emperor Bao Dai would not be around to see it as monarchy was not the American way and a new, republican, leader was already being showered with favors by Washington. The scene was set for the Second Indo-China War that was to quickly come after.

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