View Full Version : Colonial Road 4
6th May 2006, 18:18
Colonial Road 4
The French called it RC 4, short for Route Coloniale 4 (Colonial Road 4). Their old road numbering system still exists in many parts of Vietnam today. The old RC 9 is well known to Americans as Hwy 9. It stretched through Quang Tri Province from Dong Ha on the coast west to Lao Bao, passing through places such as Cam Lo and Khe Sanh.
Where is RC 4? Follow Hwy 1 (RC 1) north via Hanoi to Lang Son, just near the border with China. On the Vietnamese side of the border, the old RC 4 originated to the south of Lang Son, at Mong Cai on the coast in the very northeastern corner of Vietnam. To the north of Lang Son is That Khe and Dong Khe, on the way to Cao Bang. It was this section of the old RC 4 which was to become famous. Another road which is important to the story is the old RC 3, from Hanoi to Cao Bang via Thai Nguyen and Bac Can.
Talk about RC 4 centers on what happened at Dong Khe on 5 to 7 October, 1950. The commander of the French fort at Cao Bang, Charton, was ordered to blow up his heavy equipment and motor transport and evacuate to the south, towards Dong Khe. "Meanwhile, a Moroccan task force of 3,500 men under the command of Colonel Le Page was directed to fight its way north from That Khe to Dong Khe, and to retake the later, and hold it long enough for the Cao Bang force of 2,600 men and 500 civilians to join up with Le Page's group" (Fall). Readers might note the presence of 500 civilians.
Unfortunately, Charton did not follow orders and left Cao Bang with his heavy equipment. His group became immediately bogged down in Viet Minh ambushes on the main road. Whether or not the presence of his heavy equipment was at fault for later events is not clear. Bernard Fall for example claims that Giap's operation "Le Hong Phong II" had concentrated around Dong Khe ten newly formed Viet-Minh battalions, reinforced by a complete artillery regiment, on top of the remaining forces of the "Le Hong Phong I" operation. They had been preparing a new offensive on Dong Khe when the order was given to evacuate Cao Bang. The French command in Hanoi knew of these Viet Minh preparations, but ordered the evacuation of Cao Bang to proceed down RC 4. Heavy equipment or not, the Cao Bang group was moving into trouble. Roger Delpey gives a good breakdown in his book about the three choices open for an evacuation of Cao Bang.
By the time Charton's group finally abandoned its heavy equipment and joined up with Le Page in the hills around Dong Khe on 5 October, 1950, it was too late. Three battalions of fresh parachutists were dropped to try to save the day, but by 7 October, the French position had disappeared, soldiers and civilians included. Delpey writes that only 700 made it out alive. Panic then struck in Lang Son, which was abandoned on 17 October, 1950, much to the consternation of military and political officials in Paris. On 18 October, 1950, the French command evacuated the rest of RC 4 south of Lang Son. Hysteria reigned as civilians in French controlled Hanoi began to talk of an evacuation.
These events caused a shake up at the highest level of the French military command. On 6 December, 1950, France appointed its greatest soldier as the new High Commissioner and Commander in Chief of the French forces in Indochina, General de Lattre de Tassigny. The Viet Minh announced that they would be in Hanoi by 19 December, the anniversary of their eviction in 1946, four years earlier. De Lattre responded by marching through Hanoi on that day in 1950 5,000 weary but battled hardened French force troops. "Confidence and resolution should be everyone's marching order", he said (Delpey). French force soldiers and civilians agreed. Confidence was restored.
However, the events at Dong Khe on 5-7 October, 1950 mark the end of "The Battle for RC 4", not the beginning. I don't know if there is inFrance a traditional date for the beginning of the battle, but I would argue that it began with General Salan's "Operation Lea" in the autumn of 1947, three years earlier, and I believe this is confirmed by Salan himself, who records the conversation he had with de Lattre on the way to Saigon on 15 December, 1950. See Chapter VI of Salan's book, where de Lattre asks him if he would have abandoned Cao Bang. The reference point for their discussion is Salan's "Operation Lea" and "Operation Cienture" in the autumn of 1947.
What was "Operation Lea" and "Operation Cienture"? Salan details the whole of it in Chapter V of his book. He was the commanding officer. He first arrived in Vietnam as part of a French military mission in 1924, a short 23 years before "Lea" happened, and he went on to become the most well known French General during what we Americans know as the French war.
Vo Nguyen Giap and Bui Tin's Division 304 came to know Salan well, though not in happy circumstances. They don't like to talk about places like Nghia Lo or Son La. Giap makes only a passing reference to "Operation Lea" , which began on 7 October, 1947, claiming that it was a failure. Apparently, he too would like to forget about "Lea". The name comes from the pass on RC 3 between Bac Can (Hanoi) and Nguyen Binh (Cao Bang). Col de Lea was the old French name for this mountain pass. Salan offers detailed maps of the operations and the terrain itself in his book.
To go back a bit further in history, the French colonial position was terminated in Indochina, and on the Chinese border with Vietnam in particular, on 7 March, 1945, when the Japanese Imperial Army interned French officers and soldiers. The story of the French soldiers who died at Lang Son at the hands of the Japanese has been repeated elsewhere. Five months later, the Japanese surrendered. To my knowledge, it was at this point, in August of 1945, that the Viet Minh moved across the Chinese border and occupied the mountains to the north of Hanoi. Then came the Chinese KMT armies as part of the Potsdam agreements to disarm the Japanese still in Hanoi. In other words, from 9 March, 1945 to 7 October, 1947, a period of over two years, the French did not control the old RC 4 along the border with China.
Events in Hanoi on 19 December, 1946 are discussed in detail by Bui Tin, because it was this day which marks the beginning of the Franco-Viet Minh war as we know it. The French were making their return to the old Tonkin. Bui Tin apparently had long discussions about this day in Paris recently, where interest in the subject remains alive among French force Veterans. It was on this day that Giap tried to take over Hanoi from the returning French. He lost the battle and was booted out of Hanoi. General Salan discusses the event beginning on page 36 of his book. Delpey adds detail about Viet Minh attacks on French civilians.
In his new book, Jacques Valette offers a good number of background details on the events which followed in 1947. He writes about a meeting between French and Dutch intelligence officers who discussed the progress of Mao Tse-tung in China. They agreed that if Mao were to continue with his victories over the KMT, a serious danger would be posed not only to French Indochina, but also to then Dutch Indonesia. It was the beginning of what we Americans call the "Domino Theory". One of the more interesting angles of Bui Tin's new book is his illustrative description of how the new Chinese advisors were received by the Viet Minh in the early 1950s.
Then French Foreign Minister Bidault agreed with the thesis of his intelligence officers. On 16 May, 1947, General Salan was appointed as the Northern Zone commander of the then reconstituted French forces with the express instruction to close all contact on the Vietnamese-Chinese border between the Viet Minh and the forces of Mao Tse-tung. See page 57 of General Salan's "Memoires", page 238 of Valette's "La guerre d'Indochine" and page 85 of Delpey's "S.O.S.
It was for this purpose that Salan launched "Operation Lea" on 7 October, 1947, against "Viet Bac" and RC 3. "Viet Bac", RC 3 and RC 4 north of Lang Son were then Viet Minh strongholds. Once "OperationLea" was complete, and the French re-established at Cao Bang, French military convoys began to move once again on RC 4 between Lang Song and Cao Bang. The Viet Minh moved back across the Chinese border. Bernard Fall claims that Operation Lea was actually a large movement to capture Ho Chi Minh and destroy his main battle troops, but he was writing before Salan's Memoires were published. Salan does not mention anything about trying to capture Ho Chi Minh during "Lea", nor does Delpey mention the subject in his 1954 book.
6th May 2006, 18:19
End of article
In his Memoires, Salan offers a chapter on how the Red Chinese menace began to crystallize on the border in 1948. Their crossing of the Yangtse River on the way south is an important date. They reached the Vietnamese border on 15 December, 1949. As Mao's troops approached, 30,000 nationalist KMT troops crossed over to the Vietnamese side of the border. Salan apparently wanted to re-arm them, but the French government disagreed. See Valette, page 240, and his note on the subject in Vincent Auriol's biography. Salan writes that these KMT troops were disarmed and sent to live on the island of Phu Quoc, in the Gulf of Thailand on the border with Cambodia.
Earlier in 1949, as Mao's troops approached, the French government began to have second thoughts about maintaining a military presence on the Vietnamese border with China. There were not enough military resources available to keep RC 4 open and the Delta around Hanoi free of the Viet Minh at the same time. A decision had to be made. General Revers was sent out from Paris to investigate. He decided that Cao Bang should be abandoned in favor of a reinforcement of the Delta area around Hanoi. The French government was simply not able to come to grips with Mao's newly arrived troops and the Viet Minh buildup which would certainly follow. It is Giap who gives the reasons for this: there were other uprisings in other French colonies. The French quite simply did not have the resources to deal with all of these uprisings at the same time. The Delta around Hanoi was to be reinforced by abandoning the mountainous border with China.
Thus began the slow and very painful process of evacuating the positions retaken by Salan during his 1947 "Lea" operation. Locally, General Blaizot confirmed in his order number 5 on 30 June, 1949, that Cao Bang and Dong Khe were to be evacuated in face of Mao's arrival on the border, and Salan himself seems to have agreed. The situation in the Delta around Hanoi was more important to French security. RC 4 from Mong Cai to Lang Son and That Khe were to remain operational. However, Blaizot left Vietnam soon thereafter, to be replaced by General Carpentier, who arrived in Vietnam for the first time from Morocco. A serious Viet Minh ambush on RC 4 on 2 October, 1949, led him to change French policy about an evacuation of Cao Bang. Carpentier ordered troops to remain at Cao Bang, thus contradicting earlier plans. Confusion thus made its appearance in French ranks.
Bernard Fall details Giap's "Operation Le Loi" against the Black River Valley in January of 1950, and about "Operation Le Hong Phong I" from February to April of 1950 against the Red River Valley. Five Viet Minh regiments briefly held Thai Nguyen on RC 3, and took over in Lao Cai, on the Chinese border where the Red River crosses. The north western corner of Tonkin thus became once again a Viet Minh stronghold, except for RC 4.
The situation on RC 4 suddenly changed for the worst on 25 May, 1950, when 2,500 Viet Minh overcame the French position at Dong Khe, thus cutting the supply line between Cao Bang and Lang Son. Since French forces were still in Cao Bang, they had no choice but to re-open the road. On the evening of 27 May, a unit of parachutists retook Dong Khe and left it to a company of Legionnaires to hold the place.
In July of 1950, French intelligence officers noted increased military movements on the Chinese side facing Cao Bang and Dong Khe. On 16 September, the Viet Minh attacked Dong Khe again en masse, thus announcing Giap's "Operation Le Hong Phong II".
The resistance at Dong Khe lasted until 6.30am on 18 September. 350 Legionnaires fought to the end. Colonel Le Page left Lang Son with a relief convoy the moment the news of this new attack on Dong Khe came through, but he was not able to reach the place in time. He too was surrounded.
It was at this moment that General Carpentier came to understand the vulnerability of Charton's position in Cao Bang. Given the situation on RC 3, he ordered the evacuation of Cao Bang to begin on 2 October, 1950 down RC 4. The idea was that Le Page would retake Dong Khe by 3 October, in order to meet the convoy coming down from Cao Bang. Unfortunately, Charton's Cao Bang group left late, and with their heavy equipment, and they also were harassed by the Viet Minh during the length of their trip on the main road. They advanced only 17 KM on the first day.
They abandoned their trucks and broke up into three smaller groups walking on jungle paths, and eventually joined up with Le Page in the hills between Dong Khe and That Khe. Le Page had still not been able to retake Dong Khe itself and was fighting desperately to maintain his positions. Bernard Fall writes that there were 3,500 soldiers in Le Page's group and 2,600 soldiers and 500 civilians in Charton's Cao Bang group, total about 6,600. General Salan writes that only 600 of these two groups eventually made it down RC 4 to That Khe on the morning of 8 October.
That Khe was immediately abandoned as the group continued south to Lang Son. Apparently, the rear guard of this new group was lost to a Viet Minh ambush before the group made it to Lang Son. Fall claims that 1,300 tons of supplies were abandoned at Long Son on 17 October, only part of which was later destroyed by air raids. Thus ends the "Battle for RC 4" between Cao Bang and Lang Son. The arrival of Mao's troops on the border had put an end to earlier French plans to
re-occupy the mountains on the Vietnamese side.
If this story is not well known in the States, it is because Americans were at the time preoccupied with events in Korea, where war broke out on 25 June, 1950. During the events on the old RC 4 in October of 1950, American newspapers were most likely filled with reports from a place called Pusan, at the very southern tip of the Korean peninsula.
Many decades later, northern Vietnam is once again open to intrepid foreign tourists. Maybe someone could get up onto the old RC 4 for a look-see? A 125cc Russian Minsk motorbike is now available in Hanoi for 5 dollars per day, insurance not included.
Delpey,Roger. S.O.S. Tonkin. Paris: Editions Andre Martel, 1954
Vo Nguyen Giap. People's War, People's Army. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962
Fall,Bernard. The Two Vietnams: A Political and Military Analysis. New York, Praeger, 1966 (Fifth Printing)
Salan, Raoul. Memoires: Fin d'un Empire, tome II. Le Viet-minh mon adversaire: Octobre 1946 - Octobre 1954. Paris, Presses de la Cite, 1971
Valette, Jacques. La guerre d'Indochine: 1945-1954. Paris, Armand Colin, 1994. ISBN 2-200-21537-1
Bui Tin. From Cadre to Exile: The Memoirs of a North Vietnamese Journalist. Chiang Mai (Thailand), 1995, Silkworm Books. ISBN 974-7047-38-1
11th May 2006, 06:52
Reference what I presume is Mr. Moore's letter/article? There were no three battalions of parachutists dropped along the RC-4 in late 1950. The 1st BEP was dropped in to link up with the Le Page column, and was with that unit when it arrived at Dong Khe. In the wake of the disaster (at the Coc Xa Gorge), the 3rd BCCP was dropped into That Khe where it was supposed to recover survivors. It did (Jeanpierre and the 20+ other BEP survivors among them), but ended up being overrun and destroyed itself. Thus two Para battalions (the 1st BEP and 3rd BCCP) were involved. I will print off copies of the above two posts and provide further corrections/critique (OP "Léa" can hardly be counted as the opening phase of any RC-4 battle, etc.). The three para battalions referenced may allude to the drop at Thai Nguyen, well away from the RC-4, which was supposed to draw VM attention away from the evacuation operation underway at Cao Bang. It did not.
There was an article published some time ago in Vietnam magazine entitled "Courage and Cowardice at Dong Khe" by a Shaun M. Darragh. This covers the 8th Moroccans battle there in May 50, at which time the citadel was overrun, only to be taken back by parachute assault by the 3rd BCCP. The article is based upon information provided the author by then LT Jacques JAUBERT of the 8th Moroccans, and it does mention that the 308th Brigade of May 50 was the 308th Division of Autumn 50. This was Giap's first regular formation, so it underlines that the Viet Minh of Mid-1950 onwards was not the Viet Minh of 1947. You should be able to pull the article off of [Only registered and activated users can see links] doing a keyword search.
11th May 2006, 09:35
That's correct. "Only" (!) 1BEP and 3BCCP were lost during the disastrous evacuation of Cao-Bang in September/October 1950. Probably one of the summits in military incompetence on the French high command side in Indochina (Gen Carpentier). Some interesting details (many could be given) :
- After this disaster was created the "Entraide Para", to financially help the families of the soldiers belonging to the 2 battalions lost in the battle. It still exists nowadays. Former repmen on the board may remember that an amount was taken from their pay to fund this sort of 'internal insurance'. Entraide para also helped the families of 1RCP soldiers killed in the attack on stonghold "Drakkar" in Beirut in 1983.
- 3BCCP (Bataillon Colonial de Commandos Parachutistes) was dropped at That Khe at the very end of the operation to help recover the survivors. It's worth mentioning this unit was due for repatriation, after its 2 year tour in Indochina, and was nevertheless sent to this 'sacrifice' mission. Nobody was missing however when they boarded the planes.
- 3BCCP were given parachutes which were due for scrap, as the Supply Corps knew those equipment wouldn't be retrieved. A couple of paratroopers were killed during the drop, when their chute didn't open.
- 3BCCP CO, Capt Cazeaux, was captured and died from bad treatments received in the Vietminh POW camps, for refusing to sign some documents written by the Viets, calling for a truce. His unwavering attitude in front of the communist brainwashing and the way he protected the other prisoners by attracting on him all the anger from the Vietminh guards explain why he posthumously became a legend. I remember seing on the Net (can't recall where) the last picture of Capt Cazeaux, taken at Giam Lam airfield (near Hanoi) just before the drop on That Khe.
- Gen Alessandri, Commanding General in Tonkin, who had led 5REI during its "long march" in 1945 to China to escape the Japanese, was fiercely against this operation. Knowing the terrain better than most, he could easily imagine the operation would turn into a huge ambush along RC4. He was unfortunately proved right. He tried to plea for an aerial evacuation or a movement southwards along the RC3 to Thai N'Guyen, but was rebuffed and sidelined by his superior, Gen Carpentier (head of the CEFEO).
- Col Constans, CO in Langson, shamefully evacuated the city, while the Viets were still kilometers away, without destroying the tons of supplies that were stored there, not to draw attention (!). Those supplies were captured intact by the Viets, when they entered the city several days after it had been evacuated.
As mentioned by lirelou, this battle, a bit like Dien Bien Phu later, is a strange mix of genuine heroism and utter cowardice and incompetence. This is probably what makes it so fascinating.
11th May 2006, 13:11
As mentioned by lirelou, this battle, a bit like Dien Bien Phu later, is a strange mix of genuine heroism and utter cowardice and incompetence. This is probably what makes it so fascinating.....des bons (Capt Cazeaux), mélangés avec des cons... Et il faut des cons pour que ça tourne :D.
11th May 2006, 17:42
It is not possible to get the article, "Courage and Cowardice at Dong Khe", from thehistorynet.com, which is a shame. Not too much out there on line about the French Indochina war.
12th May 2006, 01:05
Reference George Moore’s article on Colonial Route 4. It is pleasing to see an interest in the First Indochina War beyond Dien Bien Phu. Particularly among Anglophones because to judge from everything printed in English, there were these rotten French who kept this poor Southeast Asian nation in slavery, until an ancient and wise nationalist, who just happened to be a communist, led his people into a guerrilla war that ended at Dien Bien Phu, and voila, Vietnam was free, except for those pesky Americans who decided to intervene in the South. I salute Moore’s efforts to look beyond the stereotypes. RC 4 still exists, along its original length, as “Quoc Lo” 4, or “Q.L. 4”, meaning National Route 4. It became critical to Vietnam’s control of Upper Tonkin during their brief war with China, when once again fighting centered about control of Langson, reportedly destroyed in the fighting. The furthest I have been into Tonkin has been Sontay, Ba Vi mountain, and Ap Da Chong, along the Black River, so I cannot verify the current state of Langson. I suppose I should travel to Sapa, but I am biding my time to visit Dong Khe and Cao Bang.
In any event, if M. Lyderik will allow me to make a few points: While operations Lea and Ceinture did result in the occupation of the Bac Kan region and RC 4, as it was designed to do, that was only the secondary goal. The capture and killing of Ho Chi Minh and his government was the primary purpose of the operation, for reasons which I will explain, but I would like to first lay a little groundwork.
The French return to Indochina was only partially to re-establish control of a French Colony. That statement is true, but in the limited sense that only a portion of the French electorate of the period supported the idea of colonies. Sizable portions did not. However wrong by today’ standards, France had built Indochina (read Vietnam) into the only economically viable entity in the French Empire. As in other colonies, France had invested heavily in Indochina. But unlike other colonies, Doumer’s economic structure and Indochina’s workaholic masses produced enough to pay off investors, creating an economically self-sustainable state in embryo. Indochina not only paid for its own development, it also paid for its own defense. Prior to WWII, 75% of the “French” troops in Indochina were Indochinese, paid for out of the colony’s budget. Whoever took over Indochina would inherit a going economic concern, a fact not lost on Vietnam’s nationalists, who even adopted the once-detested Romanized script to get their ideas out to the masses.
With the 1940 defeat of France by Germany, post-war French control was seriously in doubt. The colonial system died in the 9 (not 7) March 1945 Japanese offensive and subsequent defeat of a geriatric and largely indigenous French force which had received no replacements in six years. Both France’s enemies and friends had seen it defeated by an Asian power, and in Asia, nothing loses respect more than a public defeat. It was time for independence. Lord Mountbatten told French troops in Ceylon as much, but the key was; You had to enter the country, reestablish control, and find somebody to turn it over to. That, in essence, was the crux of the First Indochina War. Ho Chi Minh, an agent of the Communist International who was cunning enough to cultivate both the image of an elderly, kind uncle (long before he moved into middle age), and an ardent nationalist, had elected himself President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, thanks in no small part to weapons supplied him by the American O.S.S. to fight Japanese, which he did on occasion, but otherwise reserved them for use against non-communist nationalists, notably partisans of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (V.N.Q.D.D.), and the French. With the defeat of Japan, Vietnam slipped into temporary anarchy, which in places like Cité Herault turned bloody indeed.
The post-1945 French governments were notoriously unstable, and with six years of war-time accounts to avenge, De Gaulle did not last long in power. From then on, no group willing to grant Vietnam full independence ever won control, save by allying itself with factions unwilling to do so. Tasked with reestablishing French authority in Vietnam, General Leclerc arrived in October 1945 to find his former subordinate, the elderly Admiral Thierry d'Argenlieu, named his superior. More to the point, he was a general with barely a battalion under his command. Two divisions were earmarked for Indochina, but these were in the pipeline. Meanwhile the atrocities kept piling up. Leclerc fully intended to re-establish French control, but he also recognized that the days of colonialism had ended in Indochina. After several meetings with Ho Chi Minh, he advised De Gaulle as much, pointing out that while “Uncle Ho” was hardly a friend of France, there was little the French could do unless they were willing to field a large force to fight a long and costly war. The recommendation meant little, as De Gaulle was soon in political exile, and Vietnam slipped closer to war.
The Allies had tasked the Chinese to take the surrender of Japanese forces north of the 16th Parallel, and the British (read Indians) to the south. But Gracey was anxious to get back to India (partition and all that), so he proved parsimonious with his forces. The Gurkhas helped clear Saigon and its outskirts of the Viet Minh, Binh Xuyen, and QNVDD, as well as bandit gangs, and quickly departed. Uncle Ho, meanwhile, saw his carefully cultivated relations with the Kwangsi Chinese KMT forces turn to naught as Chiang Kai Shek sent in Yunnan based troops, described in the gentlest terms as a pillaging horde. Ho’s nascent Viet Minh were totally incapable of forcing the Chinese out, so he turned to the French. A deal was struck with Leclerc and Sainteny which would allow the French back for five years if they recognized Ho’s government, and the French, who had landed in Haiphong under Chinese gunfire, were allowed to proceed to Hanoi. Accused by his enemies in the Party of betraying the Vietnamese revolution, Uncle Ho quipped that he would rather smell French shit for 10 years, than Chinese shit for 1,000. However crude, the prediction was quite accurate. With the Chinese safely out of the way, and a French political failure to produce a government that could negotiate with HCM, rising tensions degenerated into the December 1946 offensive.
Back in France, Indochina was considered a post-WWII clean-up operation in which the Foreign Legion was supposed to have a small part. But with those rising tensions, more of the Legion found itself bound for Indochina. It would expand to its largest size since WW1. In 1946 alone, the 2nd REI, 3rd REI, 13th DBLE, and 1st REC joined Commando Ponchardier, the 5th and 6th Colonial Infantry, and the SAS Demi-Brigade, as well as a reconstituted 5th REI, in reestablishing order, then liberating the various towns and cities of North, Central, and South Vietnam from the first Tet Offensive. In the wake of this failure, the Viet Minh returned to guerrilla warfare. For a short but critical period, Ho and his government lived a peripatetic existence before settling into the Bac Kan region between Tuyen Quang, famous in Legion history, and Cao Bang.
Mr. Moore is correct in his assessment that the reoccupation of the Bac Kan region (permit me the French spelling) was closely related to the reoccupation of Cao Bang and clearing RC-4. He is incorrect in his belief that it had nothing to with any mission to kill or capture Ho Chi Minh and his government. According to Erwan Bergot’s “La Bataille de Dong Khe” (Presses de la Cité, 1987), Cao Bang was originally a paramilitary post occupied by the Garde Indigène until 1939, when the French started building it up into a citadel of Maginot line proportions. It was taken by the Japanese in March 1945 and not reoccupied by the French until October 1947, following the “near capture of Ho Chi Minh by (French) Paras” (citing Raymond Muelle’s history of the Choc Battalion). This entry prods a look into both Jean Pierre Pissardy’s “Paras d’Indochine”, and Paul Gaujac’s “Histoire des Parachutistes Français”. Gaujac is the former official historian of the French Army. According to Pissardy (vol. I, p.59), the goals of Operation Léa were to: “couper la principale route de ravitaillement reliant le Viet Minh à la Chine, disloquer le “réduit national” …(et) le détruire”. Operation Ceinture was the follow-up mission to exploit the success of Léa, when Ho Chi Minh’s government, which escaped by the skin of its teeth, had relocated into the southern Bac Kan region. An airborne battle group was formed to drop directly onto where French intelligence suspected Ho’s government was to: “tenter une nouvelle fois, de capturer les dirigeants Vietminh, ou en cas d’échec, rechercher les informations les concernant…” (p. 63). Gaujac backs Pissardy up, stating that, in reference to both Léa and Ceinture, “l’idée d’une capture par surprise du gouvernement d’Ho Chi Min est trop séduisante pour être abandonnée ». Moreover, « …cette opération d’envergure, prévue pour terminer enfin la guerre d’Indochine, doit durer six mois et mettre en œuvre un corps de bataille de 20 000 hommes » (Gaujac, pp. 148-152 with maps). In summary, whatever Salan said or did not say, there is little doubt that the Autumn offensive of 1946 had as its primary purpose the killing or capture of Ho Chi Minh and his government. It is worth noting that in the wake of this offensive, the French National Assembly recognized Indochina as a war separate and distinct from WW2, and prohibited the use of draftees in Indochina. (continued below)
12th May 2006, 01:06
Notes on Dong Khe/RC-4 (Con't)
This, in turn, caused the French to look to the North African and Colonial Armies to provide the manpower for Indochina. France also agreed to recognize Indochina as an independent state, within the confines of a French Union. Of note, Chinese Communist fortunes had also changed, and they now passed from guerrilla to conventional warfare, with the end result for Indochina as noted in both Moore’s article and Peter’s post.
Other minor points.
Fall was a respected historian, be he does make mistakes, as in the number of battalions lost along the RC-4. He was not on the scene.
I mentioned the “three battalions error in a previous post. Taking Pissardy’s list (Paras, Vol II, p. 115), the only drops directly associated with the October 1950 RC-4 fighting was 16 Sept – the Tho and Nung Parachute platoons were dropped into That Khe to reinforce the garrison; 17 Sept – the 1st BEP’s drop into That Khe to join Lepage; and then the 8 Oct drop of the 3rd BCCP (understrength, and reinforced with the 1st BEP replacement company) into That Khe to rescue survivors. My previous post on 3 battalions into Thai Nguyen does contain one error. That drop, on 1 Oct, consisted of a battalion plus of 7th BCCP (reinforced with Nguyen Van Vy’s 3rd Indo Para Company of the 3rd BCCP), not three.
Moore mentions “ten newly formed” VM battalions. They were in fact the first regular VM forces. Bergot mentions 17 battalions NE and E of Dong Khe (p. 77), and Gaujac gives a higher number for the entire RC-4 front. Gaujac’s order of battle (24 battalions) includes the entire 308th Division, under Vuong Thua Vu, and regiments 246, 209, and 174. The entire RC-4 zone was under the command of Le Quang Ba.
Charton’s force is not specified. It consisted of the 3rd Moroccan Tabor, the 3/3 REI (3rd battalion of 3rd REI), and a provisional battalion of highlanders (mostly Tho and Nung) consisting of the 136th, 138th, 140th, and 142nd Light Infantry “Suppletif” Companies (CLSMs). These last are the ones that Fall neglects to count. The French count them, as was evident at the 50th anniversary commemoration held as Les Invalides in 2000. Their “fanion” was on display.
According to Bergot (p. 49), Dong Khe was held by two companies at the time, not one. They were from the 2/3 REI (at That Khe), under the command of Cpt Allioux, the battalion XO (adjoint major). The loss of Dong Khe was the only positional battle of the campaign, all other combat was mobile. It was at the Coc Xa gorge where the two forces linked up, and were annihilated. Lepage had moved into the gorge seeking respite, and Charton was trying to get him out.
It is worth noting that the commander who panicked and abandoned Langson was none other than the commander of the 3rd REI, Col. Constans. However short a time he had in the Legion (he came from the Tabors), his name does deserve to go down in infamy.
Bui Tin (Tinh?) may have been present during Léa, but the 304th Division was not. It did not yet exist.
I’m not sure about the “19 December” timeline for Ho’s triumphant entry into Hanoi. Most French authors mention his boast to celebrate the Tet new year there, which comes during January and February. He did not, only because De Lattre had inflicted his first defeat on Giap’s forces at nearby Vinh Yen between 15 and 18 January 1951. But it was a close call. The victory parade would have been in mid-January.
More points can be made, but I will stop here. Since this is a Legion website, I should mention that the RC-4 battles cost the Legion more than the 1st BEP. The Parachute Company of the 3rd REI had been amalgamated into the BEP prior to this operation, and as mentioned, 1st BEP replacements inbound from the 3rd BEP back in Algeria were attached to the 3rd BCCP, which was likewise annihilated. Having destroyed Charton’s 3/3 REI and Allioux’s two companies of the 2/3 REI, Ba’s Vietn Minh would have claimed more, except that Captain Mattei at Na Cham had the courage to disobey orders and remain in place long enough to retrieve more survivors.
12th May 2006, 01:26
3BCCP were given parachutes which were due for scrap, as the Supply Corps knew those equipment wouldn't be retrieved. A couple of paratroopers were killed during the drop, when their chute didn't openThat's an amazing story... You stated the supply corps knew. Did the paras know this too? wow!
12th May 2006, 08:43
That's an amazing story... You stated the supply corps knew. Did the paras know this too? wow!The "gaziers" (French military slang to name the soldiers) realised the parachutes they were issued were for sure not new... Did they know they were supposed to be scrapped? I can't tell.
In some accounts I've read of this battle, it's even said they were not folded, so that they had to fold them before putting them on.
It is worth noting that the commander who panicked and abandoned Langson was none other than the commander of the 3rd REI, Col. Constans. However short a time he had in the Legion (he came from the Tabors), his name does deserve to go down in infamy. 100% agree. Let's point out however that Constans was not a 'genuine' Legion officer. He was actually commanding the so-called "zone frontière" (border zone) and since the major unit in the area was 3REI, he became de facto CO of 3REI. Like his 'mentor' Gen Carpentier, and other high level French officers at that time in Indochina, he was more a specialist of North Africa.
I've seen on a (French) military history forum that some months ago his son published a book aiming at rehabilitating his father's memory. Needless to say, it was not very well received by the veterans of this era still living.
After this debacle, the French govt sent an investigation mission in Indochia under the command of a WW2 hero, Gen Juin, to find out what had gone wrong. Although both Carpentier and Constans initially tried to conceal their responsibilities, their failure soon appeared in full light and they were discretely 'moved to other positions' (read sacked). Juin was considered to replace Carpentier as head of the CEFEO (Corps Expéditionnaire Français d'Extrême-Orient) but declined the offer : some say he didn't want to tarnish his reputation in what he saw was a huge mess (in French slang "un beau merdier"). Carpentier was therefore replaced by Gen de Lattre de Tassigny, another WW2 hero when he commanded the (Free French) 1ère Armée Française (Rhin et Danube). As mentioned above, de Lattre won a major victory in Jan 1951 at Vinh Yen, just 3 months after the RC4 disaster. After their success on RC4, the Viets believed the war was won and, for the only time in the Indochina war, underestimated their ennemy's reaction capacities and de Lattre's extraordinary ability to re-motivate his troops. They launched a large scale offensive in open terrain, North of Hanoi, and were crushed, in particular by the Air Force which on this occasion used napalm for the first time in Indochina. I could describe how the paras played again a major role in this battle, with 10BPCP (Bataillon Parachutiste de Chasseurs à Pied) holding the pivotal position on hill 210, in spite of repeated Viet assaults, but I could be accused of being 'biaised' :cool:.
15th May 2006, 01:19
For anyone interested in a list of all the units present during the RC-4 fighting, there were a number of other French units involved. The following units were listed in the hand-out presented to participants in the “Cérémonie Commemorative du Cinquantième Anniversaire des Combats de la R.C. 4” held on 5 October 2000 at the Hotel national des Invalides:
1st, 2nd and 3rd Battalions, 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment
1st Foreign Battalion of Parachutists.
Moroccan Tabors Group/Far-East: 1st, 3rd, and 11th Tabors
Provisional Battalion, 8th Moroccan Tirailleurs Regiment
3rd Colonial Battalion of Parachutist-Commandos with attached Legion para reinforcements
1st Battalion, Indochinese Formations – Cao Bang
Thô Para Platoons (sic – Pissardy lists 1 each Thô and Nung Para Platoons)
5th Squadron, 1st Chasseurs.
1st Company, 21st Colonial Infantry Regiment
2nd and 3rd Companies, 73rd Engineer Battalion
Elements of the Colonial Artillery Regiment of Morocco (RACM) and the 69th Artillery Regiment.
Elements of the 516th Transportation Group, the 71st Road Transport Company, and the 555th Pack Mule Company.
Elements of the Signal and Material Support Corps
2/5th “Ile de France” and 3/6th “Roussillon” Fighter Squadrons, French Air Force.
“Bearn” and “Franche-Compte” Troop Carrier Squadrons.
Army Medical Service
The hand-out also lists enemy forces as the 308th Brigade (sic), and Regiments 209, 246, 174, and 88. The “Tabors” were light infantry battalions consisting of Berber tribal levies. Within the “tabors”, the companies were designated “goums”. The 8th RTM was a standard infantry battalion composed of Arab regulars. These last were deadly shots at long range with their .303 British Enfield rifles. Median age by 1950 was 34 years, and most were World War II veterans. The RACM was the artillery (“Bigor”) counterpart of the RICM, the most highly decorated regiment in the French Army. Both were originally composed of European French “colons” from North Africa. Tank “squadrons” in the French Army are the equivalent of tank companies in the U.S. Army. Also, te 71st "Route Circulation" Company (translated as Road transport) did include a Foreign Legion section.
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