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The Vietnam War for the modeler (1945-1975) - part 1

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By John Guilmartin
The Vietnam War began at the tail end of World War II when attempts by the French to regain the empire they lost to the Japanese in March of 1945 ran up against widespread Vietnamese desire to bring French colonial rule to an end.

In this, the United States played a small but pivotal role. To obtain intelligence on Japanese in northern Vietnam, the American OSS (Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA) turned to an obscure group, The League for Vietnamese Independence, or Vietminh, led by one Ho Chi Minh. Ho, a sometime agent of the Moscow-based Comintern, provided good intelligence, and in mid-July 1945, an OSS team parachuted into his headquarters in the jungles of Tonkin to support him with arms and training. The team's presence enabled Ho to portray himself as having American support, a factor that played large in his initial seizure of power.

French colonial rule returns

When the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs forced Japan's surrender, Ho and the communists moved quickly to seize power in Hanoi. On Sept. 2, Ho declared Vietnam independent, but no foreign power recognized his government, and Chinese Nationalist forces were pouring into Tonkin to accept the Japanese surrender. To get the Chinese out, Ho agreed in Feb. 1946 to accept a French occupation force in return for limited recognition of his government.

Parallel developments in the south were equally complex. There the Vietminh were weaker, competing for power with a bewildering array of political factions and religious sects. The British 20th Indian Division accepted the Japanese surrender, but massive pro-independence and anti-French demonstrations in Saigon induced the commander of the 20th, Maj. Gen. Douglas Gracey, to permit armed French civilians and Foreign Legionnaires released from Japanese prisons to seize power on Oct. 22, expelling the Vietminh from public buildings in Saigon.

The Vietminh faded into the countryside, and two nights later returned to attack Gracey's outposts. The ensuing clashes between the Vietminh and Gracey's Hyderabad, Madras, and Ghurka units marked the outbreak of war. By the end of October, the French, having obtained liberty ships from the U.S. in the wake of VJ Day, had built up their strength sufficiently to break out of Saigon and begin the re-conquest of Cochinchina.

Power sharing fails

In the north, the power-sharing arrangement between the Vietminh and French was doomed to failure, and fail it did when Ho and Vo Nguyen Giap, leader of the nascent Peoples Army of Vietnam (PAVN), were forced by French arrogance and brutality to choose between military action and a loss of political credibility. On Dec. 19, 1946, the Vietminh attacked, pitting raw, poorly armed, recruits against professional soldiers. They were quickly driven from Hanoi, Haiphong, and the major towns and villages, but faded into the jungles. Slowly they began the task of training and organization, sending cadres into the rice-farming areas under nominal French control to organize guerrilla resistance.

Underestimating Vietminh determination and discipline and misunderstanding the revolutionary nature of the war, the French sought victory by conventional means. Paratroops dropped into Ho's jungle headquarters in Oct. 1947, and armored and riverine columns linked up with them. Ho and Giap were nearly captured, but the Vietminh slipped away, denying the French the decisive battle they sought and answering, instead, by wearing the French down in ambush after ambush. It was a portent of things to come.

The French Expeditionary Force was a professional army based on Algerian, Moroccan, Senegalese, and Foreign Legion infantry, supported by mostly-French artillery and armor and all-French aviation units with a strategic reserve of elite parachute battalions. The French also recruited from among their subject peoples; some of their best units were Vietnamese parachute battalions and colonial bataillons de marche, self-contained battalions of regular Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian infantry, all led by French officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Most arms and equipment were from U.S. World War II surplus, though the Armée d l'Air initially used cast-off Royal Air Force Spitfires for close air support and relied almost entirely on ancient ex-Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 52 transports for airlift well into 1952 when U.S.-provided C-47s became available.

The Vietnamese choose enemies

Few Vietnamese would have preferred French rule to independence, but many came to see the Vietminh as the greater evil. Communist antipathy to religion drove certain religious groups into an alliance with the French. The Hoa Hao, an ascetic Buddhist sect, and the Cao Dai, whose beliefs combined elements of Catholicism, Confucianism, and Buddhism were especially critical as their militias controlled large areas of Cochinchina. The Catholics, who controlled the southeastern corner of the Red River Delta, took longer to arrive at the same conclusion, but by 1949 they also had sided with the French.

After the failure of conventional operations in 1947, two far-sighted French commanders, Brig. Gen. Charles Marie Chanson in Cochinchina and Maj. Gen. Marcel Allesandri in Tonkin, mounted pacification campaigns to remove Vietminh influence from the key rice-growing regions of the Red and Mekong River Deltas, and by the summer of 1950 achieved considerable success. But the fundamental character of the war had changed in December 1949 when the Chinese Communists, victorious in their civil war, arrived at the Vietnamese border. They established training camps in nearby China and provided the Vietminh with ex-Nationalist Chinese U.S. weapons, particularly 75mm and 105mm howitzers. With their new arms and growing confidence, the Vietminh began a campaign to isolate the French garrisons along the Chinese border supplied by convoys running along Route Coloniale 4, or RC 4. The initial ambushes were not terribly impressive, but Vietminh skill and confidence grew with practice, and by late 1949 resupply of the border posts by truck convoy had become prohibitively expensive for the French.

Giap attacks

Given arms and sanctuary, Giap organized his regiments into divisions, and in February 1950, blooded them in attacks on French outposts along the remote upper reaches of the Red River near the Chinese border. These attacks had the dual purpose of testing Vietminh organization and training and of diverting French attention from RC 4. At the same time, Vietminh ambushes cut off Cao Bang, the northernmost and largest of the outposts along RC 4; it could now be resupplied only by air. In August, Giap ordered an all-out offensive in Cochinchina. It failed, with French forces inflicting horrendous casualties on the mostly non-communist southern Vietminh, but the attack had its intended effect of diverting French attention from the north... and perhaps of ridding the southern Vietminh of unreliable elements. In October 1950, when the French belatedly realized the severity of their predicament along the northern outpost line and tried to evacuate Cao Bang, Giap struck, annihilating both the Cao Bang garrison and the linkup force. Two battalions of the Foreign Legion, three Moroccan battalions, a battalion of T'ai hill tribe partisans, and two parachute battalions, one of them the elite 1st Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion, were wiped out. It was the worst French colonial defeat since the loss of Canada in the Seven Years War.

In panic, the French prepared to evacuate Tonkin, but the situation was stabilized by the arrival of a new Commander-in-Chief, Marshall Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. Called the French MacArthur because of his flair for the dramatic and willingness to take risks, de Lattre breathed life into the French. He drove back Giap's divisions with heavy losses when they attempted to break into the Red River Delta - strategic key to the war - between January and June of 1951. De Lattre then went over to the attack, ordering the seizure of the town of Hoa Binh southwest of the Red River Delta, a terminus on the rice supply route between the Than Hoa region, the only rice-growing area under Vietminh control, and Vietminh base areas north of the Delta.

The French achieved surprise and easily seized Hoa Binh, but the Vietminh rerouted their rice convoys and returned to gnaw away at the French lines of communication. It soon became apparent that the pattern of the October 1950 disaster was repeating itself, and in February 1952, the French withdrew - weeks after de Lattre died of prostate cancer in a Paris hospital.

In October, Giap launched his divisions across the northern Red River into Laos, thoroughly out-foxing de Lattre's replacement, Gen. Raoul Salan. A Vietminh column nearly captured the Laotian royal capital of Luang Prabang before an opportune French ambush and the onset of the monsoon rains in May put an end to Giap's offensive.

At that point, with both sides nearing exhaustion, the French named a new commander in chief for Indochina, Gen. Henrí Navarre. The emotional polar opposite of de Lattre, Navarre, an armored officer with a background in intelligence, had a cerebral and distant personality, later described as "feline" by his detractors. At this point, the costs of the war, both economic and political, were beginning to wear on France. It was clear that the war must end soon and that the next year would be critical. Navarre arrived with reinforcements from France and a mandate to get things done. He started well, throwing the Vietminh off balance with a spoiling attack on the southern edge of the Red River Delta and an airborne raid on the communist logistical base at Lang Son. Click here to go to Part 2.

U.S. Air Force (top) and French government (middle and bottom) photos courtesy Jim Mesko.

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