France had a long history of fighting colonial wars and saw Indochina as just another inconvenient colonial revolt that needed to be suppressed in the usual manner. This approach was a mistake, but once the Korean War broke out, it was perhaps understandable.
In Korea, the communists had very much gone straight for the conventional-warfare phase. The result was that the French assumed they could bludgeon the Viet Minh into submission through the use of superior strength and firepower. What they did not take into account was the strength of the Viet Minh’s ideology. In addition, they were fighting for their country – the French were not.
The spearhead for France reclaiming her colonies was the Foreign Legion. It had a proud and colourful history. During its formative years, the Legion had fought all around the world, including in Indochina. In 1883–84, legionnaires took part in the storming of the forts at Son Tay and Bac Ninh, both held by Chinese irregulars. When the fighting finally came to an end a decade later, the Legion’s battalions formed the Régiment de Marche d’Africa au Tonkin, who helped keep the peace largely undisturbed until 1941.
This tough force fought with distinction during the Second World War. Afterwards, there was no shortage of foreign volunteers trying to escape or forget their troubled pasts. The Legion was happy to turn a blind eye, even to criminals or those who had committed war crimes. During the Indochina war, the Legion’s strength would reach 30,000 men. Their training and administrative base at Sidi-bel-Abbès, sixty miles south of Oran in northwest Algeria, in May 1945 started the creation of a régiment de marche to be sent to re-occupy Indochina. Most of the Legion contingent in Indochina, numbering 20,000 men, were deployed in Tonkin during the second half of the war. Inevitably, they were to play a key role in the fighting at Dien Bien Phu.
Although the French sought to regain control of Saigon and southern Vietnam in the summer of 1945, it was not until the following March that the French Expeditionary Force was able to enter northern Vietnam. In the meantime, in October 1945, General Leclerc arrived in Saigon with elements of the French 2nd Armoured Division and the 3rd and 9th colonial infantry divisions. They were reinforced by the 2nd Foreign Legion Infantry Regiment (REI) that landed in February 1946, followed by the 13th Foreign Legion Demi Brigade in March and the 3rd Foreign Legion Infantry Regiment between April and June. A 3,000-strong naval brigade was also deployed to patrol Indochina’s numerous waterways.
Over the next few years, French parachute units, who were to become famous in Indochina, began to arrive, including the 1st, 2nd and 5th colonial commando parachute battalions (BCCP) and the 1st Chasseurs Parachute Regiment. By the end of 1948, French paras had made forty combat jumps, three of which involved over 1,000 paratroops. The 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion (BEP) arrived late that year and the 1st Indochinese Parachute Company was formed. By mid-1949, the French Union Forces in Vietnam totalled almost 150,000. Most of the fighting, though, was conducted by some 5,700 French paratroops. The most important arrivals that year were the 3rd and 6th BCCP, the 2nd BEP and the 5th REI.
France’s colonial forces were always seen as the poorer cousins of the metropolitan French army. In Indochina, this meant that the local commander-in-chief had no autonomy. He was answerable to his military superiors in Paris and his political masters in Paris and Hanoi. Even when the role of commander-in-chief and High Commissioner were combined in 1950 under General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, political interference continued unabated.
In France, the politicians played to the gallery, with a war that was very unpopular with the electorate. This often led to extraordinarily foolhardy decisions. For example, in 1950, at the point that the Viet Minh were taking the Cao Bang ridge defences, the government cut the size of the forces in Indochina by 9,000 men. Also, to curry favour with the French public, conscripts could only serve in France, Algeria (considered part of France) and French-occupied Germany.
The result of this was that all French citizens sent to Indochina had to be volunteers. Inevitably, this greatly restricted the French contingent. French volunteers never accounted for more than half the total of the French Expeditionary Force – the average was about 52,000, or slightly over a third. What it meant was that the bulk of the ethnic French units bore the brunt of the fighting. They also made up most of the mobile reserve. As mobile infantry, French soldiers travelled in half-tracks, with the support of American supplied M4 Sherman and M24 Chaffee tanks, as well as armoured cars. Their normal infantry fire power of carbines, sub-machine guns, 60mm and 81mm mortars and .50in heavy machine guns was boosted by artillery. This included 75mm field guns, as well as 105mm and 155mm howitzers.
The paratroop units, which formed the cutting edge of most operations were largely self-contained, though relied on the air force for transport. Initially, transport aircraft were always in short supply. It was not until the early 1950s that American-supplied C-47 Dakotas (or Skytrains) and C-119 ‘Flying Boxcars’ were available to replace the last of the French-built Junkers Ju-52s called Toucans, a hangover from the Second World War. By 1954, the first American-supplied H-19B helicopters also became available.
The French air force’s main role, as well as supplying the ground forces, was to provide direct support, especially for troops in contact. Principal aircraft included American B-26 Marauder bombers and F8F Bearcat fighters, along with Canadian-built Beaver and French Morane 500 Cricket reconnaissance aircraft. The French navy provided coastal fire support and river patrols, along with Privateer maritime bombers and F4U Corsair fighters.
The paucity of French regulars meant deploying colonial troops from other parts of the French Union. Throughout the conflict, Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian and Senegalese troops served in Indochina. Commanded by French officers, they were organized and equipped the same as French regulars. One exception to this rule was the Algerian units. Due to Algeria being considered part of metropolitan France, they were allowed native officers although Algerian losses were lumped in with the 15,000 North Africans killed in Indochina – indicating they were not truly considered ‘French’.
At the close of 1952, there were around 175,000 troops in Indochina, comprising 54,000 French, 30,000 North Africans, 18,000 Africans, 20,000 Legionnaires and 53,000 Indochinese. The French air force deployed 10,000 personnel and the navy 5,000. Local national forces were also quite sizeable. At Dien Bien Phu, nearly half the members of 2nd Battalion, 1st Parachute Light Infantry, were Vietnamese.
The French arrived in Indochina with a very wide variety of weapons because of the post-war French army’s reliance on America and Britain for arms. One of the most common was the U.S. M1 carbine. The selective-fire M2 and folding-stock M1A1 were also used by French paras. Rifles included the American M1 Garand, British SMLE, French MAS-36, and its folding-stock derivative, the MAS-36CR39 paratrooper carbine. In the early stages, the French fought with the American M1A1 Thompson and M3 ‘Grease-gun’ sub-machine guns as well as the British Sten. By the 1950s, the French-made MAT-49 had largely replaced these.
The standard squad-level light machine gun was the French FM24/29, which first saw combat in Morocco in 1926. French forces also employed the British Bren light machine gun. Legionnaires deployed to Indochina in 1946 with the Bren Mk III, though this again was eventually replaced with French-made weapons. Support weapons such as heavy machine guns, mortars and recoilless rifles tended to be of American manufacture. Ironically, the Viet Minh were armed by China with American weapons captured in Korea, which were usually newer models than the French had, who were reliant on Second World War surplus.
The French employed Second World War vintage tanks and armoured fighting vehicles. The standard tank of the French Expeditionary Force was the American M5A1 light tank, although it was superseded by the American M24 Chaffee from 1944 onwards under the U.S. Military Aid Program. It remained in service throughout the war. The Chaffees were dubbed ‘Bisons’ by the French troops, while the Viet Minh knew them as ‘Oxen’.
The French also employed the ubiquitous American M4 Sherman medium tank, M36B2 tank destroyer and M8 self-propelled howitzers. Motorized infantry was transported in M3 half-tracks. The M8 variant of the latter, mounting a 75mm gun, was also used in Indochina. The tank destroyers were initially deployed in case the Chinese committed armour to the fighting in Tonkin, but instead they ended up acting in a fire-support role.
To support amphibious operations in Indochina’s flooded paddy fields vast river deltas and swamps, the expeditionary force operated American M29C Weasel amphibian cargo carriers (known to the French as ‘Crabes’) and tracked landing vehicles known as the Alligator. Both were likewise veterans of the Second World War. The LVT(A)4, armed with a 75mm howitzer, packed a particular punch. The Crabes, although only armed with a machine gun, were eventually formed into effective amphibious fighting units by the Foreign Legion, who likewise used the LVTs.
At the start of the fighting, the tanks were parcelled out in penny packets to protect vulnerable convoys and static outposts. This made them difficult to maintain, thereby reducing their effectiveness. Only after General de Lattre de Tassigny took charge in 1951 were the armoured units reorganized with their own supporting infantry. This led to the creation of the sous-groupement blindé, comprising a squadron of tanks and two mechanized infantry companies, and a groupement mobile with up to three battalions of infantry, an artillery battery and up to a squadron of tanks.
France attempted to tap into the huge manpower of Indochina, but the French were wary of training a fifth column and local units were never fully trusted. It did not help that the Vietnamese and Cambodians were traditional enemies. The Vietnamese viewed the Chinese in much the same manner. General de Lattre, in 1951, instructed each French unit in Vietnam to form a locally recruited second battalion. He also opened an officer cadet school, followed by two more for reserve officers.
A small Vietnamese National Army was formed under French command, along with anti-guerrilla units raised particularly among the mountain tribes. By 1952, the Vietnamese National Army numbered 50,000 men, the Laotian army 15,000 and the Cambodian army another 10,000. Although the full potential of these Indochinese forces was never realized, some 27,000 Indochinese died fighting for the French.
French training efforts for local Vietnamese units were concentrated in the north. In late 1948, they established the Vietnamese National Military Academy in the city of Hue. This was designed to train infantry platoon leaders with a nine-month officers’ course. It moved to Dalat two years later because of better local weather. The latter was home to the armour school, but this moved to Thu Duc, along with the engineer school. By the end of 1951, there were 800 Vietnamese officers serving.
The French also set up the national non-commissioned officers’ academy in Quang Yen Province, Tonkin, in 1951. The following year, this was followed by a staff college in Hanoi. This was as a result of the French Expeditionary Force setting up a tactical instruction centre, designed to train mobile group, battalion and company commanders. Notably, intelligence and logistics schools were not established until the late 1950s. This was to prove to be a serious omission on the part of the French.
French forces in Indochina included a postscript from Korea. The French Bataillon de Corée (Korea Battalion), which was raised from volunteers from all branches of the French army, metropolitan, colonial and Foreign Legion to serve in Korea, arrived in Indochina in October 1953. This formed the cadre of the two-battalion-strong Régiment de Corée. This was practically destroyed in the central Highlands, around An Khe and Pleiku, while serving with the Groupe Mobile 100 in June–July 1954.
The French logistical supply chain, stretching all the way back to Algeria and France, proved to be the expeditionary force’s Achilles heel. In Paris, the war was not a priority. Many either did not support it or simply saw it as an overblown police operation. Shipping or flying ammunition and weapons to Indochina was lengthy and expensive, and was again unpopular for this reason.
Once in-country, the high command in Hanoi struggled to distribute supplies to the troops. In the immediate Red River Delta area around Hanoi, and indeed in the south, it was not such a problem, but getting supplies to the outlying garrisons and large operations was another matter.
The French were reliant on two methods of supporting their soldiers. The first was land-based, using the roads and rivers. Whilst this was relatively easy to do, both were always very vulnerable to ambush. Viet Minh attacks on supply barges on the Black River trying to reach the garrison at Hao Binh contributed to General Salan’s decision to abandon the town. French airlift capabilities were simply not sufficient. Initially, they had to rely on old Ju-52s, but even with the arrival of newer C-47s and C-119s, they could never muster more than 100 transport planes. They were required to run supply flights, move reinforcements and drop paratroops. By the time of Dien Bien Phu, they were stretched to the limit.