During the period 1945-1954, France fought to regain control over its possessions in Indochina: Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia, and Laos. These were occupied by Japan during World War II and then witnessed the rise of an anticolonial movement led by local communists. France’s postwar weakness significantly complicated its military efforts- including the use of airpower-in Indochina.
The air war in Indochina formally was one-sided. The only air forces employed were those of France and its allies. Yet local forces paid great attention to the abilities and limits of airpower in strategic planning and operational and tactical decisions. This enabled communist-led peasant guerrillas to challenge French air supremacy asymmetrically and contributed to their victory. Additionally, the French air experience in Indochina emphasized the importance of the principle of economy and distribution of forces and the crucial need to suppress enemy air defenses during ground support operations.
The aerial conflict in Indochina also had a formidable international dimension: Japan, Britain, China, as well as the Soviet Union and the United States were involved, though in different forms and on different stages during the conflict.
In the fall of 1945, British and French forces were airlifted to French Indochina to establish order after the Japanese surrender. This brought the allies into conflict with the communist- led Vietminh movement, which declared the independence of Vietnam (Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin).
In 1945-1946, the British provided combat air support and allowed some Japanese air transport units (the socalled Gremlin Task Force) for the advancing French troops in Cochinchina, Annam, and Cambodia. During the 1946- 1949 campaign in Tonkin and Laos, French airpower supplied ground support as well as delivering troops and cargo in jungle and mountainous terrain. The French expeditionary corps also used parachute-dropping to gain control over Luang Probang and Haiphong and employed combined air/airborne and ground assaults in two large-scale operations: PAPILLON (Hoah Binh, April 1947) and LEA (Viet Back, October 1947).
In April 1947, the French made the first aircraft-carrier strike in its military history. During the war French air forces and naval aviation (one or two French aircraft carriers were constantly off the Indochinese shores) developed close and effective interservice cooperation.
In Indochina the French had an extremely diverse aircraft inventory, including the Supermarine Spitfire IX, North American Mustang, Consolidated PBY-5 Catalina, Douglas C-47, as well as other allied types. There were also German Ju 52 transports and Japanese Nakajima Ki 43 fighters. This wide variety of types created serious maintenance and operational problems.
As continental China fell under communist control and the Korean War began, the international setting of the war in Indochina changed dramatically. The United States sent additional planes to the French. The Vietminh managed to transform its guerrilla bands into a disciplined and highly motivated regular army supplied from China and the Soviet Union.
In 1950-1952, both sides employed the mobile warfare operations. The French escalated airpower involvement in Indochina (more than 10 major air bases and 275 planes at its high) using aircraft in the combined air/airborne-ground operations. These were mostly successful in eliminating about a third of the Vietminh combat force.
The French air force contributed to the victorious campaign by bombing raids (the French used napalm for the first time in December 1950), supporting the airborne assaults (Operation LORRAINE, Na-San, December 1952), as well as providing supplies and transportation for troops (the Lang Son, Ninh Binh, and Hoah Binh battles).
In order to consolidate and explore the 1950-1952 military successes, the French command under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny introduced some strategic, operational, and tactical innovations. It assembled forces (including air units) into combined mobile strike groups. To compensate for the shortage of bombing power, which the campaign revealed, the French began to use transports as bombers.
Additionally, the French command developed the concept of air-supported and air-supplied combat outposts and fortified supply centers for control over territory and antiguerrilla operations. Despite some initial successes in northern Laos, the idea of airmobile warfare in difficult climate and complex terrain seriously overestimated French capabilities in Indochina.
The Vietminh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap understood the vital role of airpower in the new French strategy. They decided to challenge by shifting guerrilla operations deep inside Indochina-almost at the limit of the maximum range of most of the French planes flying from their bases in coastal areas and aircraft carriers. Additionally, the Vietminh used terrain to cover its movements, employed massive artillery assaults on enemy airfields, and concentrated antiaircraft fire.
French self-assurance and underestimation of the enemy met revolutionary tactics when the French, under new commander General Henri Navarre, tried to lure the enemy into a decisive battle inside Vietminh-controlled territory. This course, accompanied with growing logistical problems and air-support limits, led to the military disaster at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
The French were on their own. With the surrender of the French garrison in Dien Bien Phu, the war was virtually over. France lost 59 aircraft (48 shot down, 11 destroyed on the ground), 167 planes damaged, 270 airmen killed, and 380 missing in action; 70 civilian crewmembers were killed as well.
The critical shortage of French strike airpower, which the conflict had revealed, led to the restoration of the separate bombing force within the French air force. The French also assisted in creating the South Vietnamese air force. The war experience had also proved the value of air defense for the communist forces and shaped the buildup of the North Vietnamese military. For China, the Soviet Union, and particularly the United States, the war paved the way for further involvement into conflicts in Indochina.
As part of its plans to fulfill its NATO-assigned duties, France first used aircraft carriers obtained from the United States and United Kingdom. However, these carriers (La Fayette, Bois-Belleau, Dixmude, and Arromanches) were also used to support air operations in the Indochina War and later in Algeria. There, the navy deployed squadrons of Grumman Hellcats, Curtiss Helldivers, and Chance-Vought Corsairs.
In Indochina, artillery planes would be used heavily for VIP transport and reconnaissance purposes, hardly ever for artillery fire. Soon, Cessna L-19 aircraft replaced aging Morane-Saulnier 500 Criquet machines (French versions of the Fi 156 “Storch”). Meanwhile, the first helicopters appeared and were used for medevac purposes. They included Hiller UH-12As, H-19s, and H-23s and Sikorsky S-53s and S-55s. However, the moment the French Indochina War ended in 1954, the French air force, mindful of budgetary constraints, took over all rotary-wing aircraft, creating considerable tension with the French army.
Battle of Dien Bien Phu, (1954)
Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the first achieved by a Third World nationalist uprising against a great colonialist power like France. Located near the Laotian border, Dien Bien Phu had been selected to change from a moving to static war. The reinforcement started on 20 November 1953. Air transportation was the only way of access, first by dropping parachutists, then by using a former Japanese landing strip.
The Viet Minh placed 130,000 men and a quantity of artillery without being detected by French aerial reconnaissance. The siege began on 13 March 1954, and the Vietnamese immediately overran several strong points where they put antiaircraft artillery, limiting the strip to night use only.
The tactical pilots of the Aéronavale (the French naval air force) fought bravely when morale was low among Armée de l’Air crews, but the transporters proved to be equally important. Their task was vital for the troops, as all support was coming from the air. Bombing missions were mainly against antiaircraft artillery to make C-47 and C-119 drops less dangerous. The United States, fearing a Chinese reaction, rejected the French plea for B-29 bombing. On 7 May 1954, the last defenders surrendered. Dien Bien Phu showed that aerial weaponry by itself couldn’t secure a victory-a lesson U. S. politicians forgot 10 years later in Vietnam.
References Armitage, M. J., and R. A. Mason. Air Power in the Nuclear Age, 1945-1982. London: Macmillan, 1983. Flintham, Victor. Air Wars and Aircraft: A Detailed Record of Air Combat, 1945 to Present. New York: Facts on File, 1990. Prados, John. The Sky Would Fall: Operation Vulture-The U. S. Bombing Mission in Indochina, 1954. New York: Dial Press, 1983.