By Dr. Peter Neville – It was 5pm on 7 May 1954 in the French command post at Dien Rien Phu, the ‘arena of the gods’ as the local Vietnamese called it. The end was near.
Fifty-five days earlier, the Viet Minh forces had launched their first massive attack on the garrison. The French plan had been to draw the Viet Minh forces into a set-piece battle. It had not worked. The French had been surrounded by the Viet Minh, and then, one by one, their strong points had fallen.
Now Lieutenant-Colonel Pierre Langlois and his colleagues heard the Viet Minh all around them. Something rolled over the roof above. It sounded like a grenade. There was no explosion. Instead, a Viet Minh soldier in a cork helmet came down the stairs from the outside. It was the moment of surrender as the soldier ordered the officers to ‘Get out!’.
In those 55 days, the French had lost 3,000 men to the Viet Minh’s 8,000. Yet it was France, with all its modern high-tech military hardware, that was defeated at Dien Rien Phu – a reverse that ended French colonial rule in Indochina. Dien Rien Phu marked the end of a bloody eight-year struggle between the forces of Vo Nguyen Giap and the French.
The origins of the Viet Minh
The formal struggle between the Viet Minh and the French started in December 1946. But the origins of the Viet Minh nationalist movement went back much earlier. On 19 May 1941, Giap and his political leader Ho Chi Minh (‘He Who Enlightens’) had formed anti-French Vietnamese communists into the Vietnam Doc Lap Dong Minh. The English translation is ‘the League for the Independence of Vietnam’ – or Viet Minh for short.
Ho and Giap had been anti-imperialist political activists for many years. The Indochinese Communist Party (ICC) had been formed in 1937. It was not called the ‘Vietnamese Communist Party’ because the aim was to form a common front with activists in the neighbouring French colonies of Laos and Cambodia.
One of the strangest things about the history of the Viet Minh is that, in its early days, it was trained by the American OSS. The OSS officer Archimedes Patti organized the so-called ‘Deer Team’, which was parachuted into the North Vietnamese province of Tonkin on 16July 1945. It was ordered to co-operate with Giap, who impressed Patti as an able tactician.
Patti’s force, just 50 strong, trained the Viet Minh and provided them with modern weapons. These included machine-guns, Browning automatic rifles, and hand grenades sent in by parachute. Patti wrote later of how ‘Giap attacked several Japanese outposts with our men’. The Americans appear in archive film-footage showing Giap’s men how to throw grenades.
Doubts remain, however, about the overall level of Viet Minh/OSS co-operation: these were small-scale operations. But they do indicate how the United States – Ho and Giap’s greatest long-term enemy – started as the apparent friend of the Vietnamese Communists.
The defeat of Japan and the August Revolution
While Patti and his men trained the Viet Minh, events were moving quickly elsewhere, with Imperial Japan going down to defeat. Between 17 July and 2 August, the Allied powers were determining the shape of the post-war world at Potsdam. They decided that once Japan was defeated, Vietnam would be divided at the 16th Parallel. North of the line, the forces of the Chinese dictator Chiang Kai-Shek would be the occupying power. South of it, in what the French called Cochin China, the British would provide the occupation force.
Japan duly surrendered on 2 September 1945, soon after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. South East Asia Command (SEAC), headed by Lord Louis Mountbatten, allocated the Vietnam occupation duties to General Douglas Gracey’s 20th Division. It was made up almost entirely of Gurkhas and Indian troops. Gracey, a veteran of the Burma campaign against the Japanese, had a good reputation and was popular with his men.
The first elements of Gracey’s division would not arrive in South Vietnam until 13 September. Before that, crucial events had taken place in Hanoi, the capital of Tonkin – events known to the Vietnamese as ‘the August Revolution’.
The client ruler of Vietnam under Japanese occupation had been the Nguyen emperor Bao Dai. On 23 August 1945, a huge demonstration of 100,000 people in the imperial city of Hue demanded that he stand down. An Act of Abdication was duly handed to the delegates sent to Hue by Ho Chi Minh’s new provisional government on 29 August. The following day, the fallen emperor read out the declaration at the Zenith Gate in the city.
Vietnam’s declaration of independence
The transfer of power was formalized on 2 September, when Ho made a declaration of independence in Hanoi. Archimedes Patti and his OSS colleagues listened as Ho quoted from the US Declaration of Independence and from the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man. Ho went on to appeal for recognition from President Truman. This appeal was ignored. Giap, the new Minister of the Interior, spoke after Ho.
In the crowd were many colons (French settlers) and some 5,000 former French prisoners of the Japanese. Both groups were armed and hostile to Ho’s government. But there was, as yet, no violence.
A similar ceremony took place in the southern capital Saigon on 23 August. A Provisional Executive Committee was set up for Nam Bo, as the south was called, under Trail Van Giau. Its supporters included Viet Minh Communists but also other nationalists. They seized the town hall. On 2 September, in Saigon, a great crowd listened to Ho Chi Minh’s speech being relayed from Hanoi.
The difference here was that tensions between the Vietnamese and the local French colon population were much sharper. Shots rang out from the Catholic cathedral and a number of people were killed and wounded (it is impossible to fix exact responsibility). Groups of Viet Minh supporters then attacked colons in their homes or on the street. An additional complication was the involvement of the supporters of religious sects like the Cao Dai and the Hoa Hao.
Restoring imperial rule
All of this happened ten days before Douglas Gracey’s forces started to arrive. When they did so, Gracey refused to recognize the authority of the Southern Committee. His brief, he believed, was to facilitate the restoration of French colonial rule. His problem was that there were so few British and French on the ground that he had to rely on Japanese prisoners-of-war to play a policing role (something which outraged the Americans when they heard about it).
In the North, Giap had a different problem. As commander-in-chief of Viet Minh Forces, he had to watch impotently as Chinese troops, part of a huge 200,000 man contingent, poured into Hanoi. Ho Chi Minh, however, was sanguine. He told a colleague, it is better to smell France’s dung than China’s all our lives.’ The Vietnamese remembered their 1,000-year occupation by China, and Ho knew that the Potsdam powers would force China to leave. And he was confident that France, the controlling authority onlv since the 1860s, could be defeated by the Viet Minh.
At that moment, though, Ho and Giap’s priority was to support their colleagues in the South, where a guerrilla campaign against British and French imperialism erupted in the winter of 1945-1946. Few Tonkinese volunteers could be spared for the South, however, and only in January 1946 could Giap leave the North to visit. By then, French troops were being sent to Vietnam in increasing numbers. These soon replaced the British, who withdrew from Vietnam in March 1946 having suffered 40 casualties.
Briefly, that March, it seemed possible that an agreement might be made which would allow Vietnam independence inside the French Union (the equivalent of the British Commonwealth). It proved to be an illusion. There was a serious dispute between the Viet Minh and the French in the northern part of Haiphong in November, leading to a major confrontation in Hanoi in December.
The war begins
The Viet Minh erected barricades in the Vietnamese quarters of the city and ignored French demands that they be taken down. On 19 December, all the electricity supplies in Hanoi were cut off as a prelude to a Viet Minh attack. The French returned fire. Their representative, Jean Sainteny, one of the very few Frenchmen trusted by Ho, was seriously wounded when his armoured car was blown up by a Viet Minh mine.
Ho Chi Minh himself told an aide, Get ready to go. This evening we’re taking a journey.’ It was a journey which did not really end until Giap’s tanks battered down the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon in April 1975.
On 17 February 1947, the resistance of Giap’s forces inside Hanoi ended. The Viet Minh retreated into the countryside. A 30-year rural insurgency had begun.
In the countryside around Hanoi, the Viet Minh remained dominant, while the French had seized control of the big towns in Tonkin and northern Annam. The Viet Minh were weaker in Cochin China, where the French held Saigon. But the same tactics were used in either case. Tunnels were dug from which the Viet Minh would emerge to attack unwary French patrols. Snake stakes and punji stakes were used to booby-trap unwary soldiers.
Giap and his men were safe in their old base in the Viet Bac, the so-called ‘Greenhouse’, where their movements could be covered in the fog and mist of the wet season. It lasted from May to November, during which time 80 inches of rain fell, making it virtually impossible for the French to mount military operations. They had the greater firepower hut faced an elusive foe.
An embedded people’s army
The war was deeply political. Giap’s memoirs reveal that intensive reorganization of the nationalist movement had begun at the end of 1945, as French troops were starting to reappear in the North.
The Viet Minh movement was a broad-based one comprising soldiers, peasants, workers, youth, and women. It even included intellectuals and artists, groups often regarded as suspect by Communists. One Vict Minh leader, Ho Van Lau, said later, ‘The Viet Minh were like fish in water. That was our slogan. Our fighters moved and worked among the people like fish in water.’ It was Giap who bolted on the self-defence units, which could be found in every village, street, and factory in the North. Some places had two companies of Fighters, others a platoon.
Years of exile and hiding served the Viet Minh well. Their leaders had constantly shuttled between North Vietnam and China, where Mao Zedong’s Communist Party was sympathetic. Their bases and hideaways soon stretched all the way from the border town of Langson (where the Japanese had massacred the French colonial garrison in 1940) westwards to the Truong Son (Long Mountains). Using these bases, the Viet Minh came out, attacked the French, and then disappeared again into the Truong Son. The mountains stretched for hundreds of miles, creating a sort of invisible front-line. The Americans later came to know the Truong Son as ‘the Ho Chi Minh Trail’.
Giap and the Viet Minh extended their war in modest ways. In 1949, they made attacks on isolated French outposts along the Chinese border. These were unsuccessful, but they deceived the French into thinking that they had the measure of the Viet Minh, whereas Giap’s main preoccupation had been to give his men combat experience irrespective of the outcome of any particular operation.
For their part, the French used the loyalty of the million-strong Tonkinese Catholic population to secure control of the Red River Delta, a vital rice-growing area around Hanoi. Giap, on the other hand, could expect assistance from the new Communist regime in China, though he would not allow units of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army to fight in Vietnam. To have done so would have undermined the Viet Minh’s nationalist credentials.
A new strategy
There was a change in Viet Minh strategy for 1950. Years of training and consolidation meant that Giap now had a regular army that could operate at brigade level. Viet Minh units attacked the French in the area between Cao Rang in the Viet Rac and the frontier town of Langson along Colonial Route 4. They won a considerable victory. Isolated French garrisons were destroyed or forced to abandon their outposts. The French lost 6,000 men and many tanks and mortars. It was probably France’s greatest colonial defeat in history to that point.
The results were important. Giap now controlled access to the border with China, and his sappers could link the Vietnamese system of dirt roads from the Viet Bac to those of the southern Chinese provinces.
Perhaps the 1950 victory caused Giap to become overconfident. In 1951, he was bold enough to take on the French in set-piece battles in the flatlands of the Red River Delta. I’ll is proved to be a serious error as it allowed the French to use their superior artillery and air-power.
The Viet Minh were by now organized at divisional level, and on 13 January 1951 elements of their 308th Division attacked near Vinh Yen. The next day the 312th Division also advanced. The offensive was a disaster. Giap had been influenced by Chinese advisers into using ‘human wave’ tactics of the kind the People’s Liberation Army had been employing in Korea.
Giap matched his hero Napoleon in his ruthlessness. The French were amazed by the reckless courage of the Viet Minh, and the result was that the Viet Minh suffered heavy casualties from concentrated artillery fire. The French also had a new weapon: napalm, supplied by the Americans, was used to deadly effect. The Vict Minh lost 6,000 men and were forced to retreat.
Giap in defeat
Giap adhered obstinately to his new tactics. On 23 March, he tried to break through the French defences on the east side of the Delta. Three infantry divisions were supposed to drive towards the vital part of Haiphong, the so-called ‘lungs of Tonkin’. They advanced 15 miles. But the French used naval gunboats to shell them from inland waterways, in addition to deploying their air-power again. Repulsed at the town of Mao Khe, the Viet Minh lost another 3,000 men.
A third unsuccessful attack was launched on 29 May. This time the 304th and 398th Divisions were ordered to attack across the Day River assisted by two regiments already infiltrated into the area. Giap had demonstrated his superb logistical skills – so evident at Dien Bien Phu three years later – by moving two divisions 150 miles without their being detected by the French. Unfortunately, the outcome was the same.
Napalm again proved to be lethal in open country, and the French used paratroopers and mobile armoured groups to smash the offensive. The battle lasted ten days. This time the Viet Minh losses were 10,000 dead.
It would be years before Giap took on the French again in a set-piece battle, and then only in the most favourable conditions. He was humiliated in 1951, having aroused Ho Chi Minh’s anger, and had to write a self-criticism for the party. Years later he would admit that these three offensives had been premature.
In 1952, Giap won a victory at Hoa Binh that forced the French to evacuate their positions on the Red River. He still lost 9,000 men, but – like Napoleon -he remained largely indifferent to high casualty rates. Technically, of course, the Viet Minh were inferior to their opponents and invariably took far heavier losses, but they had the crucial advantage that they were able to draw on a vast pool of manpower.
The French had 230,000 men in their Expeditionary Force, but of these only 90,000 were regular French soldiers. The French Foreign Legion (some of whom were former SS men) made up a further 40,000 of the force, some 50,000 came from French Africa, and another 50,000 were Vietnamese colonial troops or levies from the Cao Dai and Hoa Hao sects. Many of these were no match for Viet Minh fighters motivated by ‘revolutionary spirit’.
The tide really began to turn against the French late in 1952. On 11 October, Giap ordered three divisions into action north of the Red River in Tonkin. This offensive ground to a halt, but the superiority of the Viet Minh showed up in other ways. Giap told a visiting American that while the peasants would carry supplies willingly for the Viet Minh, when they were conscripted to do so by the French they had to be guarded lest they abscond, draining the enemy’s military strength in policing duties.
By the end of 1952, outside the big cities of Hanoi and Saigon, the French had control only over the areas around Tourane (Da Nang) and Hue. Giap left alone some small border areas near China which could he supplied only by parachute. This was a deliberate tactic to waste French time and resources, and to lure the colonial enemy into efforts to maintain distant forward bases. Giap was positioning the Viet Minh for a decisive struggle. By Dr. Peter Neville
The Viet Minh Guerrilla History
In its early days, the Viet Minh operated at a very basic level. In 1942-1943, they functioned as an anti-French movement deep in the forests of the northern province of Tonkin. Their weaponry was crude: at the start, just daggers, spears, and old flintlocks.
The leadership realised that this weakness had to be addressed. Old pots and pans were made into primitive landmines by blacksmiths brought into Viet Minh hiding-places. Mines were a cheaply made and very effective guerrilla weapon. The emphasis, though, was on politics. The Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh said, ‘People first, guns later.’ This meant that Viet Minh fighters had to be propagandists as well as soldiers.
The Viet Minh had first to deal with a ruthless French effort to crush their movement in 1942-1945. Everyone suffered from what the Viet Minh called ‘the White Terror’. The Viet Minh military leader Vo Nguyen Giap lost his wife in a French prison, and his sister-in-law was guillotined. A Viet Minh supporter could be shot by the French for trying to take a few grains of rice to the guerrillas in their jungle hideouts.
The French threat was dealt with by creating an organisation based on cells. Each Viet Minh member belonged to a cell, but the cell members knew no-one outside their own cells. A designated meeting-place in a hut or cave was where captured arms or food supplies could be brought.
The military capabilities of the movement had to evolve quickly when a full-scale war broke out with the French in December 1946, after Japan had been defeated. The Japanese had allowed a puppet Vichy regime to exist between 1940 and 1945.
Vietnamese resistance began at village level (xa), where a platoon, perhaps a dozen men with a rifle or two, might use machetes to kill local police (almost certainly Vietnamese themselves). At a slightly higher level, a group of villages might form a 50-strong militia with a light machine-gun. The larger groups might ambush trucks or French patrols, though this would be unusual.
More professional were the Viet Minh regional troops, who were full-time soldiers operating in areas disputed with the French. They had mobile battalions, which ranged around outside their village areas. Using a mixture of captured Japanese, French, US, and even British weaponry, there were 52 regional battalions by the time the Viet Minh launched their decisive offensive against the French at Dien Bien Phu in March 1954.
In the vast area of paddy fields in the Red River Delta around Hanoi, the regional troops could eventually bring up mortars, 57mm recoilless guns, and machine-guns to attack isolated French blockhouses. These night attacks were a terrifying experience for native colonial troops, well portrayed in the 2002 Michael Caine version of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. The Viet Minh would mine the approach roacls.
In addition to the local militia and the regional troops, when the Franco-Viet Minh war started in 1946, a regular Vict Minh army of some 30,000 troops (the Chu Teh) already existed. By 1953, this force had risen to 125,000 regulars, and their heavy battalions had heavy mortars, 75mm guns, and bazookas.
They could be sent to China for training and they were given captured US weapons (from Korea). These men were ferocious warriors who wore a motley collection of French, Chinese, and US uniforms. Individuals were even known to wear fedoras instead of bush hats. Before French and Chinese uniforms became available, on the other hand, the regulars wore caoaoor ‘pyjamas’.
The regulars’ dedication to the revolutionary cause amazed the French. A fighter like Vinh Dien would hurl himself under a slipping 105mm gun on its way to Dien Bien Phu as a human wedge.