French troops coming ashore on the coast of Annam, July 1950.
By 1949, French intelligence in Paris was increasingly concerned about how the war against communism in China was going. Despite being equipped with millions of dollars of American weapons, Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists were rapidly losing. The city of Hsuchow (Xuzhou) on the North China Plain was in the news bulletins for all the wrong reasons. Chiang was defeated in Manchuria in 1948, with the loss of 30,000 soldiers and all of their equipment. By the end of the year, his remaining armies were completely cut off at Hsuchow.
Chiang was betrayed by General Liu Fei, his military assistant, who revealed the nationalists’ strategy to the enemy. On 10 January 1949, some 320,000 nationalist troops were forced to surrender south of Hsuchow. This meant that the communists could march down the Yangtze River, which runs through the very heart of southern China. Ten days later, with his government in chaos, Chiang resigned as president of the Chinese Republic. In April and May, the communists entered Nanking on the Yangtze, and then Shanghai. Once the nationalists were looking to flee to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), it was only a matter of time before Mao’s four-million-strong People’s Liberation Army reached the border with Indochina.
The French military were now taking the situation in Indochina very seriously. France’s most senior soldier, General Georges Revers, Chief of the General Staff, flew to Indochina in May 1949 to assess the situation in person. He and his fellow generals knew that Mao’s imminent victory would drastically transform the status quo in the region. During his briefings in Saigon and Hanoi, it soon became apparent that once Mao was up against the border backing the Viet Minh, the French military would be unable to hold the frontier.
Revers’s report recommended that Lao Kai on the Red River in northern Tonkin, which was particularly isolated, and the Cao Bang-Lang Son ridge on the border northeast of Hanoi, be abandoned, rather than needlessly sacrificing the scattered garrisons. The units could be better used in strengthening the Red River Delta defences. Lao Kai was sometimes referred to as ‘the gateway to China’. The delta, General Revers reasoned, would provide a base to conduct pacification operations, followed by a counter-offensive into the Viet Minh’s heartland in the Viet Bac.
Revers made an astute strategic assessment that was largely ignored by the politicians. He had accurately predicted Giap’s forthcoming campaign. Despite Revers’s recommendations, it was felt that the Cao Bang-Lang Son ridge could not be abandoned, because it sat astride Route Coloniale 4. All the time that it was occupied, it prevented Chinese aid from reaching Giap in Viet Bac. This ignored Revers’s assessment that the ridge could not be held in the face of a concerted attack.
Although the French had reinserted themselves into Indochina and its major cities, they never really took control of the surrounding countryside. In reality, their authority was confined to the main towns and the roads connecting them and the outlying forts. Even in their Tonkin heartland around Hanoi, guerrilla activity and intelligence gathering by Ho Chi Minh’s forces remained unchecked.
The key to the defence of Hanoi and the port of Haiphong was the Red River Delta. Both sides were well aware of this. It shaped their strategic thinking and was to dominate the war until Dien Bien Phu. Giap’s immediate task, as predicted, was to secure the very long frontier with China, which ran all the way from the junction with the Laotian border in the northwest, and to the Gulf of Tonkin in the northeast. This would ensure the free flow of Chinese instructors, weapons and ammunition. The campaigning season was limited, so he needed to act before the rains from May to October 1950 severely hampered mobility.
General Wei Guo-qing, leading a Chinese military advisory group some 280 strong, arrived in April 1950. Their role was to guide Ho Chi Minh on the best tactics and strategy to use against the French. It is not entirely clear just how much influence they had, but the size of the group suggests that it was quite considerable. Wei no doubt espoused Mao’s doctrine of ‘man-over-weapons’ to defeat superior French firepower. As manpower was never a problem, the Chinese Communists were advocates of the ‘human-wave’ tactic, whereby an enemy was simply swamped and overrun. In Indochina, this was to flounder in the face of the French air force’s guns, bombs and napalm.
Giap massed fourteen infantry and three artillery battalions with which to attack the French border forts. He struck first at Lao Kai, not far from the Chinese border, in February 1950. The small French garrison found themselves being bombarded by heavy mortars before being overrun. Then, northeast of Hanoi, he attacked the vulnerable Cao Bang-Lang Son ridge. Both these two towns, between which were French posts at Dong Khe and That Khe, sat astride two different roads from China. These in turn were linked by the road that ran south all the way to the French-held port of Tien Yen.
On 25 May 1950, the Viet Minh took the sandbagged outpost at Dong Khe, midway along the ridge, wiping out two companies of North African troops. This was a typical fort, built on a hilltop after the jungle had been cleared from the summit. Giap employed four battalions, supported by small artillery pieces and mortars to overcome the 800-strong garrison. It was the first time that the Viet Minh used the Chinese human-wave tactic. However, his men had to withdraw two days later, when a French parachute battalion arrived on the scene.
In July, General Chen Geng arrived from China at the request of Ho Chi Minh to help with Wei’s advisory group. This again indicates that Mao was exerting some considerable influence on the conduct of the war in Indochina. Chen also encouraged Ho and Giap to renew their efforts to take the border forts. At the end of the year, he was to depart for Korea, leaving Wei in charge.
Both sides waited for the summer rains to ease before fighting resumed. By this stage, General Marcel Carpentier, commander-in-chief of the French Expeditionary Force, had about 10,000 troops protecting the scattered forts on the ridge. Giap singled out Dong Khe once again, encircling it with his artillery and mortars. The Viet Minh 174th Regiment built a full-scale replica not far away to facilitate lengthy and detailed training. Nothing was left to chance.
Two companies of legionnaires from the 3rd Foreign Legion Regiment, some 260 men, who were holding Dong Khe were shelled all day on 16 September 1950. They only had two artillery pieces, consisting of a 75mm gun and a 105mm howitzer with which to reply.
Then at dusk, six Viet Minh battalions swarmed forward under covering mortar fire. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting followed. They had killed or wounded 140 of the defenders and driven them out of three of their four sandbagged positions by the following night. The legionnaires put up a heroic defence, but were finally overwhelmed on 18 September. A relief column formed by the Legion’s elite 1st Parachute Battalion, who were dropped at nearby That Khe, were ambushed and driven off.
The garrison at Cao Bang at the northern end of the ridge was now cut off from its delta support. General Carpentier finally conceded that Route Coloniale 4 could not be held. On 3 October, it was decided to evacuate Cao Bang. The 1,500 retreating troops and accompanying civilian refugees, however, had first to get past Viet Minh-held Dong Khe to reach That Khe and Lang Son. What followed was a disaster. Despite the French air force flying 844 sorties in support, the French suffered very heavy losses. French pilots were hampered by low cloud and ground mist that helped conceal the Viet Minh’s movements.
On 9 October, the withdrawing garrison, plus a 3,500-strong relief force from That Khe, were both separately ambushed and scattered. The two four-battalion-strong French columns were soon surrounded by thirty Viet Minh battalions and overwhelmed. The two columns never managed to meet on the road, and when some of the survivors regrouped, they were attacked for a third time. All order vanished, and the French lost about 4,000 men in the surrounding jungle. A parachute battalion was annihilated while conducting rear-guard actions. Lang Son was abandoned by Carpentier. Likewise, the 2nd and 3rd battalions of the Legion’s 3rd Regiment were severely mauled.
By 17 October 1950, all the forts had fallen, resulting in 6,000 French casualties. Giap had secured a strategically important piece of border territory, as well as capturing enough French weapons for an entire division. These included 9,200 rifles, 900 machine guns, 125 mortars and 13 heavy guns, as well as 450 trucks. French morale was crushed, and a wave of alarm passed through the French military and civilian population in Indochina. When the news reached Paris, it was greeted with a mixture of despair and outrage. Heads had to roll. The government’s response was to sack both High Commissioner Léon Pignon and General Carpentier.
The French hold on northern Tonkin, Hanoi and the Red River Delta was now precarious. In France, the war was increasingly disliked, with the Cold War in Europe a national preoccupation. The wounded from Indochina were routed home through provincial airports lest they be greeted by hostile demonstrators in Paris. Conscripts could not go unless they specifically volunteered, but most were deterred from doing so by a lack of faith in the conflict and by understandably anxious parents. There was an atmosphere of tension, with supplies for Indochina being sabotaged on French trains and in ports. Even getting donated blood out to the troops was problematic. France’s communists were opposed to the war, and there were dark mutterings that they were behind the disruption.
The Viet Minh’s supply routes from China were now secure, meaning they were now in a position to confront the French with much greater strength than before. Heartened by his victory, Ho Chi Minh boasted that he would be in Hanoi within a matter of weeks. Giap was encouraged to go over to the ‘open-battle’ phase of their grand strategy. They planned to launch an all-out assault on the delta region, with a view to overwhelming the remaining French strongholds, which would isolate Hanoi and force the French out. What they had not bargained for, however, was the arrival of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny as joint High Commissioner and commander-in-chief in December 1950.
De Lattre, like de Gaulle, was a war hero and a keeper of the faith. Like de Gaulle, he was autocratic, but he loved his men. He had led the French First Army during the liberation of the Riviera and the long march into southern Germany. This force had included the veteran Algerian and Moroccan divisions. They were the saviours of Strasbourg and Colmar. De Lattre first arrived back on liberated French soil on 16 August 1944 with his 16-year-old son Bernard. De Gaulle had granted the boy special permission to join the army and his father. The diminutive general was photographed with his young son proudly towering over him. During his early career, de Lattre senior had fought at Verdun and during France’s wars in Morocco. He was exactly what Indochina’s demoralized garrison needed.
In truth, de Lattre was not the first choice for such a difficult mission. Other veteran generals had been approached. Juin, busy in Morocco, had declined, while Koenig said he would only go if the Indochina garrison was bolstered with conscripts. De Lattre was serving as NATO’s land forces commander, under General Dwight Eisenhower as Allied Supreme Commander, with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery as Eisenhower’s deputy. It was not an easy relationship, especially as the other two always saw themselves as the dominant military partners.
General de Lattre was very much a French version of Montgomery, and putting them together was never a good idea. It was a titanic clash of egos. Their relationship was so tumultuous it was almost to the point of outright hatred. Their squabbles over the chain of command for the Western European Union were so corrosive that it eventually helped derail France’s commitment to NATO. De Lattre was serving as Inspector General of the French armed forces when Montgomery got him appointed commander WEU land forces. Once in post, he would not recognize Montgomery’s authority, which led to very public accusations of disloyalty.
Eventually, after a particularly unpleasant confrontation on 10 May 1950, a weeping de Lattre was reconciled with Montgomery. Before his departure for Indochina, de Lattre had tea with Montgomery, who was celebrating his sixty-third birthday. He was touched when the old field marshal cut an extra piece of cake for Bernard de Lattre, who was already serving in Indochina. Whatever their differences, they were brothers-in-arms and they understood each other.
The young Minister for Overseas Territories, François Mitterrand, warned the 62-yearold de Lattre that Indochina would be a poisoned chalice. He cautioned that it could wreck his health and his reputation. Certainly, at that stage in his life, de Lattre did not need this appointment. No doubt he was astute enough to realize that the fighting in Indochina would swing on the pendulum of the escalating Korean War and the meddling of China. Washington had made it clear that it would not tolerate the spread of communism down the Korean peninsula, whatever the cost. Many senior French officers saw Indochina as another front in the same war. The Soviet Union, China, and communism in general wherever they raised their heads, needed to be contained.
Nonetheless, de Lattre had two good reasons for going. Firstly, Lieutenant Bernard de Lattre was there and writing home with very frank assessments of what was happening on the ground. Bernard, like his father, was a soldier through and through. During the Second World War, he had been wounded, earning the Médaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre. Secondly, every year hundreds of young officers coming out of the Saint Cyr military academy were being killed in Indochina. On 23 October 1950, Bernard had written to his mother: ‘Tell Father we need him, without him it will go wrong.’ What father could refuse such an appeal from his son? De Lattre felt he could make a difference.
De Lattre did not go alone, for he summoned many of his wartime comrades. He needed men he could trust and rely on. From his 1944–45 staff, he took generals Allard and Salan, and colonels Beaufre and Cogny. They also rallied others, such as General de Linarès, who was already in-country. Great pomp and ceremony was made of de Lattre’s arrival in Saigon, where he pointedly ignored his disgraced predecessor, General Carpentier. Once in Hanoi, he reviewed the troops and then addressed his staff. He said it was for the young officers that he had accepted this challenging assignment.
There were no promises on the table. Paris offered no reinforcements, and de Lattre could provide no easy victories. What he could promise them was firm leadership. De Lattre knew from Bernard that among the many shortcomings of the French army in Indochina, there was a lack of firm and purposeful command. This bred poor morale and it was something that had to be addressed immediately – the removal of Carpentier was a start. As well as this, de Lattre knew that his immediate task was to hold the Viet Minh at bay while the Red River Delta defences were strengthened.
Salan was appointed deputy commander for northern Tonkin and de Linarès deputy commander of the delta area. The field command was divided into three divisions and the headquarters reorganized to improve civil/military liaison. While making his preparations, de Lattre lobbied for reinforcements but they would take time to reach him. Everything now hung in the balance.