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Hell in An Loc
The 1972 Easter Invasion and the Battle that Saved South Viet Nam
By Lam Quang Thi
University of North Texas Press
Copyright © 2009 Lam Quang Thi
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Sieges of the Indochina Wars
In Valley of Decision, John Prados and Ray W. Stubbe reported that at the height of the siege of Khe Sanh, in February 1968, Gen. William C. Westmoreland asked Col. Reamer W. Argo, command historian, to make a study comparing Khe Sanh with past sieges and to recommend a course of action for the embattled garrison. Argo and his team found that of the fifteen sieges identified during the twentieth century, defenders resisted successfully only in two instances: the Russians at Leningrad (1941–1944) and the Americans at Bastogne (1944).
If asked about the successful sieges in the military history of Viet Nam, it is doubtful that the command historian would know that toward the end of the eighteenth century, at the port of Quy Nhon, 280 miles southeast of Khe Sanh, Gen. Vo Tanh, on orders from Emperor Nguyen Anh, held out for two years (from 1779 to 1801) against the Grand Army of Tay Son, preventing the latter from linking up with its navy in order to launch a coordinated attack on the cities of Phan Thiet and Gia Dinh in the south. The heroic stand of Vo Tanh also allowed Emperor Nguyen Anh's army to bypass the siege of Quy Nhon to capture Hue on February 2, 1801, and eventually unify the country under the Nguyens' rule.
Of course, Colonel Argo couldn't predict that four years after his presentation, history would record another siege where the defenders resisted successfully: the South Vietnamese at An Loc (1972).
To study the battle of An Loc it is necessary to compare it with other important sieges of the Indochina Wars. The description of the battle of Dien Bien Phu, in particular, would allow for a comparative study with An Loc, not only in terms of strength, terrain, tactics, and fire support, but also in terms of leadership traits of the respective commanders. On the other hand, the study of the siege of Khe Sanh and its subsequent abandonment amid growing concerns about a repeat of Dien Bien Phu would help explain why the NVA was able to move supplies and men into the battlefields in South Viet Nam in the late 1960s, and build up its forces in the run-up to their 1972 offensive in Binh Long province in MRIII.
A brief review of major political and military developments in 1949–1951 will help us understand French defense strategy in North Viet Nam and its decision to establish the fortified bases of Nasan and Dien Bien Phu in 1952 and 1953 respectively.
In October 1949, Mao Tse-tung took over China and since there was no controlled border between China and Viet Nam, the Viet Minh (VM) started to receive increased military aid directly from the Chinese Communist regime, which transferred to them modern, U.S.-supplied weaponry captured from Chang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalist Army, including artillery guns.
With increased military aid from the Communist bloc, the Viet Minh was able to form three regular divisions (304th, 308th, and 312th) in 1950, by incorporating their independent regiments in North Viet Nam and in the northern part of Central Viet Nam. To counter-balance the massive Chinese aid to the Viet Minh, Mr. Dean Acheson, U.S. Secretary of State, recommended military assistance to the French forces in Indochina and called for the creation of a Vietnamese National Army in early 1950; the first military equipment began to arrive in October the same year.
In October 1950, under pressure, the French decided to abandon the border garrison of Cao Bang. The French rescuing columns—consisting of four battalions of Legionnaires, paratroopers and Moroccan Tirailleurs—progressing on Route Coloniale (RC) 4 were ambushed by the VM 308th Division and 209th Regiment. Many units were completely wiped out and the survivors had to abandon their wounded and disperse in small units through the dense forests bordering RC4. The French suffered over 7,000 casualties during the withdrawal operation. The French also lost 13 105mm howitzers, 125 mortars, 480 military vehicles, 3 armored platoons, 940 machineguns and over 8,000 rifles (these losses included weapons that were in storage).
It was estimated the above losses could be used to equip two VM divisions. Stunned by the Cao Bang disaster, the French decided to abandon Lang Son. In Lang Son, the French left 1,300 tons of ammunition and other military supplies they didn't have time to destroy.
To exploit their victories at Cao Bang and Lang Son, in January 1951 the Viet Minh launched a daring attack on Vinh Yen, just twenty-five miles west of Hanoi with the 308th and 312th Divisions, but Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap's first attempt at conventional warfare was defeated by the timely reinforcement of the battlefield by Gen. Jean De Lattre de Tassigny, the new Commander-in-Chief of French forces in Indochina and the use for the first time in Viet Nam of napalm bombs supplied by the United States. The Viet Minh suffered 6,000 casualties and 500 prisoners were captured. The French losses were about half those of the Viet Minh.
Nasan (November–December 1952)
In October 1952, Gen. Raoul Salan, who had replaced Gen. De Lattre de Tassigny—diagnosed with inoperable cancer the previous year—launched Operation Lorraine aimed at diverting Viet Minh forces from the Red River Delta and cutting the enemy rear lines of communications in the strategic Thai Highlands near the Laotian border. But Vo Nguyen Giap refused to engage the French forces and Lorraine was forced to withdraw without achieving its goals.
To thwart the Viet Minh's threat to the Thai Highlands and North-Laos, General Salan took advantage of Lorraine to establish in November 1952 a fortified base at Nasan, approximately 120 miles west of Hanoi. Salan believed that it was too dangerous to venture on narrow and tortuous roads through the forested mountains of the Thai country and that the best way to fight the Viet Minh there was to rely instead on strong bases built around an airstrip in selected strategic areas. The new concept of the "air-ground base"—a term coined by Martin Windrow, an Associate of the Royal Historical Society in Great Britain—would allow the French to establish a presence in the Thai country, to reinforce and resupply the garrison by air and to destroy the attacking forces with superior artillery fire and air power.
Nasan is a two-kilometer-long and one-kilometer-wide valley surrounded by small rolling hills. It had an airstrip that could accommodate transportation aircraft in use in the French Army at the time. Salan occupied Nasan with three paratroop battalions, five infantry battalions, one engineer battalion, and one armored reconnaissance company. The defending units included the newly formed 31st VN Groupement Mobile (GM) consisting of two infantry battalions and one artillery battalion. The Nasan garrison was commanded by Colonel Gilles, the paratroop commander.
In installing the fortified Nasan base, Salan wanted to achieve three goals: a) to assemble the small garrisons located in the northwest and southeast of Nasan and to save them from being overrun by the Viet Minh; b) to thwart the enemy's attempt to take over the Thai Highlands; and c) to induce the enemy to attack and to destroy their regular forces by artillery and air power.
True to Salan's expectations, the Viet Minh began to launch probing attacks on the night of November 23. During the nights of November 30 and December 1, the Viet Minh attacked in force and succeeded in capturing two outer strongpoints. The latter were retaken by counter-attacks by the units from the inner ring of defensive positions. At one point, the French had to drop paratroopers on the top of one of the hills captured by the Viet Minh to attack downhill and destroy the enemy in their bunkers. The Vietnamese artillery battalion from the 31st VN GM inflicted heavy casualties on the attackers during two days of fighting. Due to the lack of enemy artillery and anti-aircraft, the French Air force was able to maintain supply and casualty evacuation flights.
The French reported the Viet Minh suffered 5,000 losses during the battle of Nasan. The French losses were modest and the "air-ground base" concept had subsequently gained acceptance within French military circles. Colonel Gilles, commander of the troops in Nasan, was elevated to brigadier-general for his successful defense of the fortified base.
Dien Bien Phu (November 1953–May 1954)
In May 1953, Gen. Henri Navarre assumed command of the French forces in Indochina. Convinced of the effectiveness of the "air-ground base"concept—which had been hailed as a great success in Nasan the previous year—Navarre decided to install a bigger camp retranché at Dien Bien Phu, a densely populated Thai village located near the Laotian border, approximately 300 kilometers west of Hanoi and 180 kilometers northeast of Luang Prabang, the royal capital of Laos.
Dien Bien Phu is a long valley traversed by the Nam Youm River and surrounded by a ring of mountains located at a distance of ten to twelve kilometers from the center of the camp retranché. The garrison itself held a perimeter of approximately sixteen by nine kilometers. General Navarre believed that the Dien Bien Phu camp would be out of range of enemy artillery if they positioned their batteries on the other side of the mountains. And if they put their batteries on the slopes facing the base, they would be easy targets for French artillery and warplanes.
According to Navarre, a fortified "air-ground base" at the heart of the Thai country would help achieve the following objectives: a) to force the Viet Minh to accept a bataille rangée in which the French had superiority in firepower and supply; b) to prevent the Viet Minh from reinforcing the coastal regions of Central Viet Nam that the French planned to pacify; c) to establish a barrier to interdict VM forces from attacking North-Laos; and d) to use Dien Bien Phu as a springboard to attack the enemy's rear in case the latter renewed their offensive on the Red River Delta.
In November 1953, the French launched Operation Castor to reoccupy Dien Bien Phu, which had been lost to the Viet Minh in November the previous year. On November 11, General Gilles and three French paratroop battalions were dropped into the valley of Dien Bien Phu. They met only scattered resistance from VM local units. After the successful air drop and the occupation of Dien Bien Phu, General Gilles was replaced by Colonel De Castries, an armor officer with extensive combat experience.
Dien Bien Phu was a complex of multi-strongpoints consisting of three distinct sectors:
—The central sector with five strongpoints (Anne Marie, Huguette, Claudine, Eliane, and Dominique) surrounding the airstrip.
—The northern sector consisting of two strongpoints (Beatrice and Gabrielle) established on two hills overlooking the valley.
—Strongpoint Isabelle, located six kilometers south of the central sector; adjacent to this strongpoint was an old airstrip that was out of service.
In March 1954, at the beginning of the major attack, the Dien Bien Phu camp had twelve infantry battalions (including the 5th VN Airborne Battalion). The artillery units supporting Dien Bien Phu consisted of 24 105mm howitzers, 4 155mm howitzers and 22 120mm mortars.
The French also had one armored company (-) at Dien Bien Phu with ten M-24 tanks. In addition, six Bearcat fighters and ten light observation aircraft were available at Dien Bien Phu for tactical air support and reconnaissance.
To prepare for the attack, from mid-December 1953 to the end of January 1954, Giap engaged the 308th and 312th Divisions, three regiments from the 316th and 304th Divisions, and one independent regiment. The attacking forces were supported by 36 105mm howitzers, 15 75mm guns, 20 120mm mortars and 36 37mm anti-aircraft guns from the 351st Artillery Division. The attacking force, including supporting units, was estimated at about 30,000 men, not counting over 30,000 civilian laborers responsible for repairing roads and carrying ammunition and supplies to the front.
The Viet Minh attacked the northern strongpoints in force on March 13. Elements of the 308th Division and 312th Divisions, supported by powerful artillery preparations, quickly overran strongpoint Beatrice with repeated human-wave assaults. Gabrielle offered furious resistance but was overrun on March 15. The French were completely taken by surprise by the effectiveness of the enemy direct artillery fire from their batteries well bunkered on the hill slopes facing Dien Bien Phu. The constant shelling of the airfield by the VM artillery and anti-aircraft fire made its use precarious from the beginning of the attack. The airfield was completely closed on March 28, limiting resupply and reinforcement by air drops into the steadily shrinking perimeter. Worse, the Thai units, frightened by the deadly enemy shelling, began to desert en masse after the first attacks, causing the French to reorganize their defense system and to reduce further the perimeter.
The Viet Minh launched a new attack during the night of March 30. Elements of the 312th Division and 316th Division succeeded in capturing parts of strongpoints Eliane and Dominique in the central sector after furious had-to-hand combat. The piecemeal reinforcement by nightly airdrops of paratroopers was used mainly to replace casualties and the lack of reserves prevented the French from mounting any significant counter-attack to recapture the lost positions.
After April 7, the situation became relatively calm and the Viet Minh took advantage of that respite to dig new trenches deep into French positions. To encourage and show support for the garrison, the French government decided to elevate all defenders to the next higher rank. De Castries was made a brigadier-general, and his new rank insignia had to be airdropped into the camp.
The final assault began on May 6. The Viet Minh overran the remaining positions on Eliane immediately east of the central sector. In the southwest, the defense of Claudine collapsed after repeated enemy human-wave assaults. On the morning of May 7, the Viet Minh attacked the last French positions around General De Castries' command post. De Castries knew the situation was hopeless; he asked Hanoi for permission to surrender to save what was left of the battered garrison. Hanoi agreed to let him act according to the circumstances. Dien Bien Phu surrendered to the enemy at 5:00 p.m. the same day.
French losses were 8,221, including 1,571 killed; 11,721 were made prisoners. According to a French document, the Viet Minh losses amounted to 9,500 killed.
The Dien Bien Phu disaster marked the end of the French presence in Indochina and sparked a chain of political events leading to the involvement of the United States in this part of the world, in compliance with its post-World War II "containment" policy. Under this concept, the U.S. objective was to "contain" Communist expansion in South East Asia by supporting a non-Communist government in South Viet Nam.
General Navarre, the commander of French forces in Indochina, was relieved of his command on June 4; the French government fell on June 12. The new French Prime Minister Mendes-France promised to achieve a cease-fire within one month. Peace talks, instigated by the French government during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, had begun at Geneva on May 8. The Geneva Accords were signed in July. The agreement stipulated that Viet Nam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel and a general election would be held in two years, in 1956. Mr. Ngo Dinh Diem, back from exile in the United States, was appointed prime minister of the post-war government in the South. On October 23, 1955, Mr. Diem, having consolidated his political power, organized a national referendum, which resulted in the overthrow of Emperor Bao Dai and the formation of the First Republic. Mr. Diem, the new President of South Viet Nam, renounced the Geneva Accords.
One of the reasons—often ignored—of the French defeat in Indochina was the lack of unity of purpose among the participants. While the United States, which provided military aid to the French forces, was counting on the French to fight a proxy war to thwart Communist expansion in South East Asia, the French were pursuing their own interests in their former colonies. In the meantime, the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians—who were fighting with the French against Communist domination—also fought for the ultimate political liberation of their countries from French colonial rule. Thus, France, to the very end, had failed to spell out clearly her objectives in Indochina, and to build a consensus for the prosecution of a controversial and unpopular war.
Another cause of the failure of French policy in Indochina, in my opinion, was France's opposition to any progressive and orderly development of the States of Indochina toward true independence in concert with the emergence of genuine nationalist governments and, more importantly, the early creation of strong national armies.
Excerpted from Hell in An Loc by Lam Quang Thi Copyright © 2009 by Lam Quang Thi. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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