Continued from part 1…
The wheel suspension did limit the French vehicles in their movement around Indochina a lot. After several incidents and minor clashes between the French and Viet Minh, the real fighting started on 23.11.1946 by heavy French shelling of the Haiphong port. After several days of fighting, on 19.12.1946, Viet Minh was pushed out of Hanoi. The Vietnamese retreated to the Viet Bac mountains, where they regrouped and from where they sporadically attacked French strongpoints. The French tried to crush the enemy forces by series of combined arms operations with the main forces consisting of elite airmobile units, the armored units providing cover from behind. Biggest such operation was called Lea – it was performed between 7.9. and 19.9.1947 at Bac Khan, where Ho Chi Minh’s HQ was allegedly located. “Uncle Ho” himself escaped only by sheer luck, the paratroopers almost captured him in his tent. The paratroopers were also given aid by two land columns and one unit was transported by river. These columns consisted of no less than 16 batallions, three of them armored. One armored column was advancing from Lang Son over Cao Bang – it made almost 200 kilometers before it was stopped on 13.9. 15km north from Bac Khan. In the end, due to their firepower advantage, the French forces managed to break through, but the escalation of the conflict first to the entire region of Vietnam and later to the entire peninsula posed a challenge for the French command.
The French forces were too weak to control the entire Indochina. The French managed to capture and hold main cities and roads, but most of their transport capacities were simple trucks with a limited operational radius. The lack of armored transports led to the situation where the French welded additional armor plates on the trucks (Dodge WC62 and GMC) to provide additional protection. The French also started building small strongpoints/fortresses, each with a company of infantry, two guns and several armored cars. The main, heavily armored and mechanized units were located on main bases and provided the core of reserve forces, that were to be sent to help the flashpoints. Viet Minh reacted on this by feigning an attack on one of the small strongpoints, which drew the armored column out and this column then became the main target of the attack. Vietnamese partisans lacked anti-armor weapons and were forced to improvise when attacking the French columns. The ambushes took place in heavily forested areas, where the Vietnamese used molotov cocktails and hand explosives to take out the French armor. The roads were also often blocked by obstacles to prevent the French vehicles from passing. Mines were also used more and more throughout the conflict.
Tonkin became the main battlefield of the conflict, but there was fighting at other places as well. One of the most difficult battlefields was a large bog plain south of Saigon, where the 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment (1er Régiment Etrangers de Cavalerie) was used. Its units, 1st and 2nd Escadrons, were the first to recieve the American M-29C Weasel amphibeans in 1947 (the French referred to them as “Crabe”). The vehicles were equipped either with French Chaterrault M1924/29 or American Browning M1919 machineguns and with 57mm recoilless guns. At first, their deployment was unsuccessful, they were crewed by untrained men, they used wrong tactics and were deployed without infantry support. Their losses were heavy and the way the French command reported, “their burnt-out husks covered the entire plain”. In the end however, the legionnaires managed to use and master them after several months of fighting, but the real deployment of forces in the bog was possible only when the French recieved the American heavy amphibeans – LVT-4 Alligator and LVT(A)-4 with a 75mm howitzer in 1950. Through them, it was possible to move stronger infantry units around. In September 1951, first mixed unit (1er Groupement Autonome) was estabilished, consisting of two escadrons of Weasels (33 each), three escadrons of LVT-4 (11 each) and one fire support platoon of 6 LVT(A)-4 75mm self-propelled howitzers. Even the Weasels were heavily armed – in one platoon, five had machineguns, two were equipped with 57mm M18A1 recoilless guns and one had a 60mm mortar. Each Alligator carried four machineguns – two .50cals and two .30cals. Some even had improvised mounts for recoilless guns.
Later on, second such group was created in Tonkin – this one had several LVT-4, rebuilt in the navy repair yards in Haiphong to carry a 40mm Bofors gun and two machineguns. Both these groups also participated in Mekong and Red River delta operations and in landing operations on Vietnam shores.
Alligators – one LVT(A)-4 with 75mm howitzers, two LVT-4 with recoilless guns
LVT-4 with 40mm Bofors
One of the largest amphibious operations was called Camargue and it happened between July and August of 1953. Its aim was to crush the 95th Viet Minh regiment, operating from large bogs between the city of Hue and Quang Tri. The operation was so large that it resembled the great battles of World War Two – the forces present were ten infantry regiments, two paratrooper batallions, three armor regiments and numerous artillery units. The creation of People’s Republic of China and the outcome of the Korean War changed the nature of the warfare in Vietnam as well – what was earlier seen as a colonial war became a fight to stop the advance of communism. On the other hand, Viet Minh, thanks to the influx of new arms, could actually now muster units the size of a regiment or even division – these units were ready by the end of 1950, proving their quality during the skirmishes near Chinese borders at Cao Bang. Very high losses in this area shocked the French command and changes were made – luckily for the French, Lattre de Tassigny was appointed as the new commander of the area. He immediately changed the structure of the armored forces to make them more practical and easier to use in the local environment. The reforms also included new shipments of American weapons, the best of which were the M24 Chaffee light tanks, that replaced the obsolete Stuarts – they had good firepower while keeping the low weight.
M24 Chaffee from the 1er Régiment de Chasseurs á Cheval unit in Tonkin
There was also some fear that the French would have to actually fight the T-34 and IS tanks from China – to counter that, by the end of 1950, a new tank regiment was founded – the Far East Armored Colonial Regiment (Régiment Blindé Colonial d’Extreme-Orient), armed with the M4 Sherman medium tanks and M36B2 Jackson tank destroyers. The Chinese attack never came however and so these vehicles were used to support infantry.
M36B2 Jackson from Régiment Blindé Colonial d’Extreme Orient, 1952
According to General de Tassigny’s plan, three different (but complementing each other) unit types were to be created:
- armored groups (Sous-groupements Blindeés), consisting of command platoon, tank company (17 tanks), three motorized infantry companies with trucks and one with halftracks (in real life however, the unit only had one tank company and two infantry companies)
- recon groups (Groupes d’Escadrons de Reconaissance), consisting of one armored car company (15 M8 Greyhounds), a company of tanks, a platoon of M8 HMC’s and an infantry detachement
- mobile groups (Groupes Mobiles) with three companies of motorized infantry, one 105mm howitzer battery, a tank company (mostly Stuarts) and a security detachment
Mobile groups became in time the main operating units of the French, but the fact they used trucks for transport limited their mobility and ability to operate. It was proven many times however that only a few tanks are enough to destroy the Vietnamese units. During one such event, on 25.9.1953, Viet Minh attecked a column of 1st Horse Regiment. The attack was repelled thanks to several Chaffee tanks and Viet Minh lost 180 men. Nevertheless, the Vietnamese morale was good – supported by his success at Cao Bang, the commander of Vietnamese forces, General Vo Nguyen Giap, planned a general offensive in Hanoi direction. On 13.1.1951, 308th and 312th Vietnamese divisions attacked Vinh Yen and ran into defensive positions of the 1st and 3rd Mobile Groups. The Vietnamese units made a mistake of leaving the forest for open ground and were massacred by French crossfire, artillery fire and air bombardment (this was the first time napalm was used against the Vietnamese). After four days of heavy fighting, de Tassigny deployed the reserve 2nd Mobile Group and crushed the Vietnamese divisions – the Vietnamese lost 6000 to 9000 men, 6000 more were wounded, the French took roughly 500 prisoners.
Giap’s forces however never ceased to attack (apart from the winter rain period) and by the end of May 1951, his units attempted further attacks around Ninh Binh. These however were too destroyed by the 1st and 3rd Mobile Groups, which managed to dismantle the entire 320th Division. This gave the ambitious Vietnamese general a pause, who, after losing thousands of men and material, had to start retreating. Now it was the French, who had the initiative and they started an offensive, but it took only two months for Viet Minh to respond with another counteroffensive of their own. One French position after another fell because of the new brutal tactic of human waves, running the French over regardless of their appalling losses. Such a fight took place in the small town of Tu Vu, defended by two companies of Senegal soldiers and a platoon of 5 Stuarts. In the night on 10.10.1951, five batallions of Viet Minh attacked. The Senegalese fought back hard with the tank support and their machinegun were mowing down the Vitnamese by dozens, but after several hours of the most brutal fighting imaginable, the French positions fell. The French, including the tank crews, fought to last man, in the end all the Stuart tanks were destroyed, burning with their crews still inside.
Heavy losses forced the French to start abandoning their positions. What was worse, de Tassigny got sick and had to return to France – he was replaced by a far less energetic general, Raoul Salan. Salan focused on defending Tonkin and attacked only a little. One of the bigger operations was called Lorraine and it took place between 27.10. and 17.11.1952. Its goal was to destroy the Viet Minh forces around Viet Bac and to force Giap to spread his armies thin, reducing the pressure on the besieged French Na San army base. Most of the available armored forces took part in this operation, but in the end, it resulted in only a half success. Giap continued with his offensive and by Spring 1953, he included even neighboring Laos in it.
As an answer to that, new French commander, General Henri Navarre (Salan was replaced by January 1953 after poor performance). Navarre, despite not being a field officer per se, quickly returned to the mobile warfare strategy. His main goal was to end the conflict quickly so the French government can deal with the colonies politically with favourable outcome. Navarre planned the decisive battle with the Vietnamese forces in the Dien Bien Phu valley. The best French units were transferred here – they had both air support and armored support (10 M24 Chaffee tanks). The tanks were transferred to the special unit called Escadron de Marche du 1er Régiment de Chasseurs á Cheval and were commanded by captain Yves Hervouët. They were split into three platoons and they fought until the end.
The fall of Dien Bien Phu on 7.5.1954 meant the destruction of the far east French army and the fall of the French empire in Indochina. Despite the fighting going on, talks were being held in Geneva, which resulted in the ceasefire treaty from 20.7.1954.
Regarding the Vietnamese fighting for the French in Indochina, Vietnamese national army was formed as early as 1950, in order for the Vietnamese to fight alongside the French against Viet Minh. This included armored units as well – first of them was the 3rd Vietnamese Armored Regiment (3e Regiment Blindée Vietnamien) created in 1951. It was equipped with M8 Greyhounds, halftracks and M8 Scott HMC’s. The retreating French left a number of vehicles in Indochina for the Vietnamese, Laos and Khmer soldiers, including several dozens of M24 Chaffees. After the peace treaty was signed, French armed forces stayed in Indochina until 1955. Northern Vietnam was left as first (on 9.9.1954).
In the end, the French tankers could decide battles, but they could not decide wars – there were too few of them for that. In 1954, France had 452 tanks and tank destroyers in Indochina and 1985 other armored vehicles. There are rumors about the captured French Panthers being used in Vietnam, but that was most likely not true. The Panthers required an extensive support infrastructure, something that was definitely not available in the colonies.