French Navy, 1946–1954, Vietnam

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Richelieu served as a command vessel for the 6th French Infantry off French Indochina during France’s war against Vietnamese insurgents there; including a heavy bombardment of Nha Trang. Both ships served during the Suez crisis in late 1956 (the only time they ever operated together), with Jean Bart landing French marines at Port Said, Egypt; near the northern mouth of the Suez Canal. Jean Bart fired a number of 15” broadsides at Egyptian shore positions during the operation.

In August 1945 when the French government decided to send an Expeditionary Corps to Indochina, it also dispatched air and naval units. The naval assets would be a squadron already in the Far East to support the planned invasion of Japan. Commanded by Admiral Philippe Auboyneau, the squadron was centered on the battleship Richelieu, supported by the cruisers Gloire and Suffren, two destroyers, and the old aircraft carrier Bearn, in service since the 1920s and now used as an aircraft transport vessel. Additional naval assets had to be dispatched from France. These were delayed by the refusal of the United States to provide logistical support, and France’s difficult postwar economic situation constrained the size and extent of its naval forces in the Indochina War.

In 1945 French Indochina depended heavily upon its river and coastal waters for the movement of people and commerce. The bulk of the region’s population lived either on the rivers or the coast, and most roads were small, primitive, and usable only during the dry season. Controlling those waters thus became critical to both sides during the Indochina War. Unfortunately for the French effort, only the authorities in the south realized that fact, and it was there, with British support, that the French first gained control of the rivers and coastal seas. The French never achieved the same level of naval dominance in the north, where the war was lost.

The French Navy began operations in the Indochina War with little in the way of assets conducive to riverine warfare: a handful of converted civilian barges and personnel only recently released from Japanese prisoner of war (POW) camps. Operating with only limited logistics and personnel support, those early units gained control of the lower Mekong Delta and eventually opened the river as far as Phnom Penh. The arrival of reinforcements in late 1945, which included former British landing craft, enabled the navy to conduct amphibious raids, interdict Viet Minh coastal traffic, and penetrate the Red River. Outposts, forts, and cities within the navy’s reach held out against the seemingly invincible Viet Minh forces, even after Communist Chinese forces began to support their cause.

Unfortunately for France, however, economic devastation at home limited the resources available to support a land war in Asia. Given the navy’s low priority in the defense budget and lack of American aid to support a war for recolonization, reduction in naval forces was inevitable. In 1950 the Richelieu and all but one cruiser were withdrawn to be decommissioned. Only a single cruiser and a handful of destroyers and sloops remained to carry the coastal war to the enemy, while riverine forces operated inland almost unsupported. This naval downscaling could not have come at a worse time.

From 1950 the Viet Minh contested the rivers. The reduced French naval presence was unable to prevent a steady increase in the level of Viet Minh coastal infiltration. Supported by only a handful of seaplanes and not equipped with radar, French coastal units attempted random patrols, then resorted to establishing ambush sites in likely staging areas, and finally turned to coastal sweeps.

The Indochina War saw the rebirth of French naval aviation. In 1946 the French had only the aircraft transport vessel Bearn. Two modern carriers under construction in 1939 had been destroyed in the war. The only modern carrier available was the Arromanches, which the British transferred in August 1946. In 1951 the United States supplied the light fleet carrier Langley, renamed the Lafayette, and in 1953 its sister ship the Belleau Wood, renamed the Bois Belleau. The effectiveness of the French air arm declined even with the deployment of two French aircraft carriers to the theater. French naval air assets were increasingly committed to supporting fighting ashore, and few resources were left for coastal surveillance.

French riverine forces meanwhile enjoyed two more years of success before the Viet Minh’s overall supremacy on land began to be evident. Much of the French success in riverine warfare can be credited to the innovative tactics and leadership of France’s first naval chief in Indochina, Commander François Jaubert, head of the Far East Naval Brigade. He realized the importance of the rivers, and in 1945 he formed the first combined naval-land river units and employed them around Saigon. Jaubert’s objective was to regain control of the critical provincial cities and towns dominating the Mekong and Bassac rivers. His first operation, MOUSSAC (October 1945), used British landing craft and improvised French river gunboats to recapture the provincial capitals of My Tho and Can Tho. Army units, which were to have participated, arrived only after the two cities had been taken. By December, Jaubert had expanded his force by 14 LCAs (landing craft, assault) and 6 LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) brought in by the Bearn from Singapore. He also had two companies of naval infantry, supported by landing parties from the Richelieu and the Bearn. His force expanded again when the British withdrew from Saigon in December and transferred their landing craft to the French.

One of the French Navy’s first steps in 1946 was to expand its operations into the north. The most important of these was Operation BENTRE, in which 21,700 French troops were landed just outside Hanoi after a brief firefight with Guomindang (GMD, Nationalist) Chinese forces holding the city. The Nationalist Chinese were not convinced to withdraw until October. Soon afterward, the uneasy truce between the French and Ho Chi Minh in the north gave way to open fighting. A French naval bombardment of Haiphong helped to drive Viet Minh forces out of that key coastal city, but the resulting civilian casualties led to much local resentment against the French. French amphibious operations brought coastal towns and the main channel town of Nam Dinh under French control, and later operations opened the Red and Clear rivers to French use, but a lack of resources prevented the French from retaining a continuous presence on those rivers.

As 1946 wore on, Jaubert noted that his units were best employed when they operated with army units familiar with naval and riverine operations. That realization led in January 1947 to the first permanent riverine organizations in Indochina. Designated Dinassauts, these units consisted of a variable number of armored and unarmored landing craft, river monitors, gunboats, and approximately one battalion of either naval or light (army) infantry. Total unit strength was approximately 1,200 men.

Two formal Dinassauts were established, one each north and south. At various times in the war, other ad hoc Dinassauts would be formed from local forces. The combined land-naval riverine force was the basis for all French riverine operations from 1947 to the end of the war.

The basic patrol craft operating in advance of these units was the 82-foot vedette patrouille, an unarmored motor launch equipped with two 20-millimeter (mm) cannon, two .50-caliber machine guns, a light mortar, and a .30-caliber machine gun. The troops themselves were transported in unarmored landing craft supported by armored landing craft mounting light cannon and heavy machine guns. The French also converted some craft by adding tank turrets and such weapons as the 40-mm Bofors and 20-mm Oerlikon antiaircraft guns.

French naval efforts in Indochina reached their peak in 1951 following the introduction of U.S. assets, including landing craft, patrol boats, and carrier aircraft. This U.S. equipment and financial support enabled the French to form four more Dinassauts and employ them against Viet Minh offensives along the Red and Clear rivers. The French also increased surveillance along the coast and intercepted more than 1,500 Viet Minh junks and other transports. For the first time in the war, the Red River and its tributaries were firmly under French control. Facing a logistical shortfall, the Viet Minh withdrew into the mountains and shifted their supply routes to the slower but now safer land lines from China.

The French Navy provided critical support to French Army land offensives in late 1951, providing sea-based air support, transporting supplies and units upriver, and conducting amphibious raids against suspected Viet Minh coastal strong points. French casualties mounted on the river routes as convoys faced increasingly more powerful and numerous ambushes as the convoys worked their way north and as enemy strength grew along the waterways. By March 1952 river convoy escort had become the French Navy’s primary mission in the north. River and coastal patrol (and thereby control) remained the primary mission only in the south.

The lack of a coordinated French strategy after 1950, a dearth of resources, the reluctance to transfer political control to Vietnamese officials, and a declining will to pursue the war all led to the French defeat. Nothing illustrates this more than the mounting losses sustained by French riverine units as they were increasingly committed to escorting convoys on the Red and Black rivers after 1952. Lacking the resources to conduct both patrol and escort missions, the French essentially surrendered the coastal waters of the north to the Viet Minh, which used them to great effect from mid-1952 until the war’s end.

The French Navy’s efforts in Indochina were exemplary and yet ultimately unsuccessful. Growing from a force of 1,200 former POWs to nearly 12,000 men, it successfully transported and supported almost 200,000 troops in-theater. The navy provided strategic and tactical mobility to French forces on the ground prior to the advent of airmobile warfare. Its efforts could never reverse the outcome of the ground war, however.

References Jenkins, E. F. A History of the French Navy: From Its Beginnings to the Present Day. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1973. Kilian, Robert. History and Memories: Naval Infantryman in Indochina. Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1948. Koburger, Charles W., Jr. The French Navy in Indochina. New York: Praeger, 1991. McClintock, Robert. “The River War in Indochina.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (December 1954): 1303–1311.

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