By late 1951, the French army had recovered from their disasters along Colonial Route 4 the previous autumn. Giap’s newly invigorated Viet Minh battle corps had been stopped on the doorstep of Hanoi at the Battle of Dong Trieu in March 1951. In May 1951 its move into the Red River Delta via the Day River was checked during hard fighting at Ninh Binh, Yen Phuc and Thai Binh. Then, in October 1951, the Viet Minh had been temporarily expelled from the Black River highlands at Nghia Lo after a daring airborne drop into their rear. In the course of a year, the French army had gone from panic verging on defeat to seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
The architect of these victories was General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, a cavalry officer from the landed nobility who had abandoned his horse and the 12th Dragoons for trench fighting with the infantry during the darkest days of World War I. De Lattre had gone on to serve in Morocco and had commanded the French First Army from the south of France to the Rhine and Danube rivers during World War II. He was vain, arrogant and often unfair to subordinates, but he had abandoned the safety of France and a sinecure with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to risk his reputation in Indochina, in a war that many senior officers wanted no part of.
If de Lattre was the terror of staff officers and tidy little garrison commanders, he had the undying respect of the combat lieutenants and captains. While his nominal fief was Saigon, he directed the defense of Hanoi personally, and the Day River battles cost him his only son, killed while commanding Vietnamese troops on a promontory overlooking the river at Ninh Binh.
French aims in Indochina by 1951 included the development of Vietnam as an independent state within the French Union and the establishment of a viable Vietnamese national army. Following the battle of Dong Trieu, de Lattre had sketched out a blueprint for victory that foresaw the end of reactive operations and a return to offensive warfare that would re-establish French military and subsequent Vietnamese national authority in disputed and enemy-held territory. The test case for his offensive strategy would be Hoa Binh. De Lattre had made that decision upon arrival back in Saigon from a whirlwind tour of the United States and France in October 1951. He had been ill since the death of his son, but had put his sickness down to grief, stress and fatigue. He now learned that he had cancer.
As he was sending men into a campaign that he might not live to see through, he called in his ground commanders and talked to each of them individually. They were all in agreement. Intelligence had noted that the Viet Minh were preparing another offensive for the Delta. It was time to go on the offensive and force the enemy to react. Hoa Binh would do just that.
Hoa Binh (the name means ‘peace’ in Vietnamese) was the capital of the Muong tribal minority. Unique among Vietnam’s Highland minorities, the Muong are racially identical to Lowland Vietnamese, but in 1951 this group still retained some of the tribal organization and culture that marked North Vietnam prior to the arrival of Chinese civilization. Sited some 62 kilometers west southwest of Hanoi, Hoa Binh sits on the west bank of the Black River, where it bends north to join the Red River above Son Tay. By boat, the town lies 134 kilometers up the Red and Black rivers, past Son Tay, Viet Tri, La Phu (modern-day La Hao-Phu An), and Rocher Notre-Dame (now Cho Che). Much of this distance was safe for riverine forces, but the last 21 kilometers between Rocher Notre-Dame and Hoa Binh ran under the view of looming mountains and narrow strips of littoral forest, broken by an occasional bluff or outcrop. By road, Hoa Binh lay a mere 67 kilometers of map distance from Hanoi via Colonial Route 6. The first 35 kilometers ran to Xuan Mai; from there the road snaked up under the Vietnam and Cham mountains for 31 kilometers–the whole of that distance full of switchbacks and turns–emerging on the Black River just below Hoa Binh at Ben Ngoc.In 1946, the French had retaken Hoa Binh with a drop by airborne forces, but they had abandoned it in October 1950 in the panic following Giap’s victories on Colonial Route 4.
Control of Hoa Binh allowed Giap three advantages. First, he could move forces unimpeded from their Tonkin highlands staging area, via the Boi or Chu river valleys, to the lower reaches of the Red River delta near Ninh Binh. Second, by traveling down the upper reaches of the Boi River valley, his forces could turn north to Cho Ben, thereby threatening Hanoi from the south. Finally, it allowed his logisticians an unclogged flow of arms and munitions from Viet Minh depots to forces in northern central Vietnam.
Hoa Binh was important, and de Lattre had no doubts that Giap would fight for it. By retaking the town, de Lattre would force Giap to contend with the paratroops, riverine forces and his new Mobile Groups, who had the firepower and mobility to destroy Giap’s regular forces. Once they had, the region would be turned over to French-led garrison forces and, eventually, the Vietnamese army then in its infancy.
The first phase of the campaign, Operation Tulipe, kicked off on November 10, 1951, to seize the Cho Ben Pass and extend French military control beyond Provincial Route 21(the so-called Route des Concessions). While Colonel de Castries’ armored Task Force North attacked south to secure the Route 21 corridor at Cho Ben, ground elements of Colonel Clements’ Task Force Center attacked west from the Nam Duong region up the Day River, and linked up with the 1st Foreign Legion Paratroop Battalion (1st BEP), which had dropped into the flooded rice paddies adjoining Cho Ben at 0910 that morning. In conjunction with these thrusts, supporting operations were carried out by other task forces to the south and east of Cho Ben.
The Viet Minh abandoned Cho Ben after putting up only token resistance, but fighting along Colonial Route 21 proved harder, involving two battalions of Regiment 64, three companies of Regional Battalion 164, and local Viet Minh forces. French air superiority, mobility and firepower gave them the advantage. By 1430 that afternoon, the 1st Colonial Parachute Battalion (1st BPC), Commando Vandenberghe, and other elements attached to Mobile Group 2 had passed through the 1st BEP’s lines to reach their objectives two kilometers north of Cho Ben. With this French toehold in the Muong highlands, de Lattre moved on to Phase II.
During World War II, de Lattre had been criticized as being too rigid in his command style. Whatever de Lattre’s faults as a World War II field army commander, by 1951, inflexibility of command was not one of them. Following the seizure of Cho Ben, he restructured his forces into three operational groups and told them to take Hoa Binh by land, air and river. Operational Group North was built around Colonel Dodelier’s Mobile Group 7 and a riverine assault unit. Its six infantry, three artillery and one engineer battalions plus a squadron of armored cavalry would sweep south from the mouth of the Black River as far as Tu Vu, from which point the river’s course to Hoa Binh was dominated by mountains. Operational Group South, under Colonel Paris de Bollardiere, would push Colonel Vanuxem’s Muong battalions of Mobile Group 3 west along Colonial Route 6 to link up with a three-battalion paratroop task force that had dropped into Hoa Binh. Liaison between these two pincers would be maintained by Mobile Group 2, temporarily stripped to two infantry and one artillery battalions, operating as an operational liaison group.
General Raoul Salan, commander of French Army forces in all of Vietnam, exercised day-to-day control of the offensive, while General Gonzales de Linares functioned as commander of ground troops in North Vietnam. On Salan’s order, the riverine and ground forces began their movement on November 13. By nightfall, Operational Group North had advanced as far as Dan The and the Ap Da Chong crossroads along the Black River, but Clement’s liaison group got bogged down in dense vegetation. Then, during the early hours of November 14, Vanuxem’s Muongs of Operational Group South reached Kem Pass on Colonial Route 6.
Fog covered the Black River near Hoa Binh that morning, but by 1230 enough of it had cleared to drop in the 2nd Colonial Parachute Battalion (2nd BPC), an airborne engineer platoon, an airborne artillery section and a small paratroop battle staff. The 1st Colonial Parachute Battalion (1st BPC) jumped in at 1410, followed by the 7th Colonial Parachute Battalion (7th BPC) at 1730. The paratroops took their objectives with almost no resistance. Four paratroopers were wounded by mines, and one came up missing in action. Three Viet Minh troops were captured.
Meanwhile, the ground elements of Operational Group South, with Mobile Group 3 in the lead, continued clearing Viet Minh forces from Colonial Route 6 while two engineer battalions set to repairing the roadway in their wake. By evening, Vanuxem’s Muongs had pushed out of the forest and down into the Hoa Binh depression, where they crossed the Black River to link up with the paratroops. Hoa Binh was officially liberated.
On November 19, General de Lattre himself flew in to take the salute from the victorious forces and to award two paratroop officers the Legion of Honor. Total French casualties for both Cho Ben and Hoa Binh were eight dead and nine wounded for 608 estimated enemy dead. By November 22, the operation was officially over. While the rest of the paratroops returned to Hanoi, the 1st Colonial Paras remained behind to garrison the Ap Da Chong crossroads.
If de Lattre had succeeded in seizing the initiative, he did not delude himself into thinking that he had purchased an easy victory. Anticipating the hard fighting that lay ahead, he divided the area into three sectors, all manned with elite forces: the Colonial Route 6 sector, organized around Clements’ Mobile Group 2, covered critical terrain along the road from Xuan Mai to Xom Pheo; the Black River sector, manned by Dodelier’s Mobile Group 7, held critical points between La Phu and Tu Vu; and the Hoa Binh sector, structured around Vanuxem’s Mobile Group 3, held the town, the airfield and the ferry points. The Black River and Colonial Route 6 sectors each counted a certain number of company-size outposts, backed up by fireballs and mobile reaction forces, whose mission it was to keep the lines of communication clear.
The Hoa Binh sector’s mission was to establish and maintain a center of fortified resistance on both sides of the Black River and a forward defense of the Hoa Binh depression, using the Hoa Binh airfield as their center of gravity. Forces within Hoa Binh included the 3rd Battalion, 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade (3/13th DBLE) to the south, and the 2nd Colonial Paratroop Battalion (2nd BPC) standing in reserve. Mobile Group 3, consisting of the 1st and 2nd Muong battalions and a platoon of automatic weapons carriers, moved throughout the sector, receiving support from a platoon of Chafe (M-26) light tanks, three 105mm artillery batteries and an engineer company.
The taking of Hoa Binh did not derail Viet Minh plans for a series of attacks in the Red River delta, but it did force Giap to draw off forces to deal with this new French threat. The Viet Minh had five divisions in late 1951, the oldest of which had only been in existence for a year. On November 21, Giap ordered the 304th Division, commanded by Colonel Hoang Minh Thao, and the 312th Division, under Colonel Le Trong Tan, to move against Hoa Binh. While new, both divisions had already been blooded. The 304th Division had fought in the Day River battles around Ninh Binh in which de Lattre’s son had been killed, while the 312th’s arrival was delayed by the 3rd Thai Battalion, which had moved into the division’s rear area on November 7. An attack by Regiment 165 on November 24 split the 3rd Thais, bottling up two companies and the command element in Lag Mange depression while the remainder escaped to friendly garrisons. Regiment 165 pressed their attack into the Lag Mange depression, but had to divert forces against the 7th Colonial Paras, who had dropped some 35 kilometers away to rescue the Thais. The Paras and Thais linked up on November 30, after which Regiment 165 broke contact and moved to rejoin the division near Hoa Binh.
Giap chose to first challenge the French along the Black River, where seven French bases dotted the banks reaching south from the Red River. La Phu, the northernmost, lay on the west bank, followed by Dan The, Ap Da Chong, Xom Bu, Ap Phu To, and Rocher Notre-Dame on the east, and finally Tu Vu, across from Rocher Notre-Dame on the west. Given the sheer immensity of the mountain chain looking down on the lower reaches of the river from the west, French strategy for controlling the Black River had to be anchored on controlling both the east bank and the critical west bank toehold at Tu Vu. From those positions, French artillery and air could be directed against any Viet Minh forces threatening the passage of riverine resupply elements. Their problem was that the terrain commanding the east bank between Dan The and Rocher Notre-Dame was only slightly less dangerous for defensive forces than that lying across the river. From Dan The to Ap Da Chong, the Ba Trai forest and irregular terrain stretched east to Yen Khoi and Yen Cu. South of the Yen Cu–Ap Da Chong road, Ba Vi Mountain and nearby peaks rose to 4,252 feet. Between those and a hill directly east of Rocher Notre-Dame rising to 2,326 feet lay the Xom Sui depression. South of Rocher Notre-Dame a narrow strip of swamp, sandbars and rice paddies, cut by rivers, pushed out a few kilometers east to meet the forest until it neared Cham Mountain, from where it entered the Colonial Route 6 sector and rose to 1,332 feet. Sitting astride the Black River, Dodelier’s Mobile Group 7 had four infantry battalions manning strongpoints at Rocher Notre-Dame, Tu Vu, Dan The and La Phu, backed up by the 1st Colonial Paratroops acting as sector reserve out of Ap Da Chong.
By December 4, elements of Colonels Thao’s and Tan’s Divisions had moved into positions from where they could cut off the 1st BPC at Ap Da Chong. Captured Viet Minh officers told the French that their first step would be the isolation of Ap Da Chong, after which they would attack lines of communication and strongpoints. Two regiments of the 312th Division, identified in the area east of Rocher Notre-Dame, gave credence to this threat.
The mounting Viet Minh presence in the area prompted the Dodelier group to reinforce Thu Phap with elements from the 1st BPC while launching a spoiling attack to ease the threat against Rocher Notre-Dame. Colonel Thomazo’s Mobile Group 4 carried out this attack on December 9, 1951, in conjunction with sector troops and Major Moulie’s 7th BPC. Their group was to clear the southern slopes of Ba Vi Mountain and the route between Chai Koai and Thuy Co.
By December 10, Thomazo’s men were pushing in from Van Mong and Yen Le to penetrate the area near Mount Ba Vi. This attack, however, bogged down in heavy terrain, prompting a covering group from Task Force North to undertake the principal assault. Major Moretti’s 1st Colonial Parachute Battalion, moving east, ran into four to five battalions from Regiment 209 in Xom Sui depression. The fighting proved vicious and was soon hand to hand. Only close air support from fighter-bombers allowed the 1st Colonial Paras to break contact. Regiment 209 pulled back its units in recognition of French air superiority, but the 1st BPC was able to recover only 15 bodies. Eighty-seven paras were missing in action. Their sacrifice forced Colonel Tan to cancel his attack against Rocher Notre-Dame.
Viet Minh plans, however, had called for a simultaneous attack against both Rocher Notre-Dame and Tu Vu, and the latter part of the plan had not been derailed. Heavy mortars rained fire on Tu Vu at 2130 that night, followed by human-wave attacks. Under the flicker of parachute flares, two companies of Moroccan tirailleurs and a platoon of tanks beat back wave after wave of Viet Minh. By 0340 on the morning of December 11, elements of Regiment 88 had penetrated the inner perimeter. Under cover of the tanks, which were all lost in subsequent fighting, the Moroccans withdrew to a sandbar in the middle of the river while three artillery batteries on the Rocher Notre-Dame side poured fire into the post. At sunrise what was left of Regiment 88 withdrew, leaving 250 bodies in the wire and another 150 bodies scattered throughout the area. A smaller attack against a single battery firebase at Xom Bu was also driven off.
On December 11 and 12, as Mobile Group 4 inched toward Rocher Notre-Dame, the Viet Minh changed their strategy. Rather than continuing attacks against French strongpoints, with their interlocking bands of defensive fire, mines, and artillery and air support, they decided to hit French lines of communication, thereby choosing the terrain on which they would engage French forces. To this end, Tan ordered Regiments 165 and 209 to infiltrate to positions in the Ba Trai and an area north of Ba Vi. Thomazo’s Mobile Group 4 soon ran into heavy Viet Minh elements manning a series of cuts in the road between Yen Chu and Ap Da Chong. As at Xom Bui, the French called on close air support, but this time the Viet Minh held.
An attack by the 5th Colonial Paratroops (5th BPC), under Major Orsini, backed up by a squadron of Sherman tanks from the Far Eastern Colonial Tank Regiment (RBCEO) also failed to dislodge them. By nightfall on December 12, the road remained blocked. Thomazo ordered Orsini to pull the 5th BPC back, but breaking contact proved to be difficult. A battalion from Regiment 165 caught one company in an ambush, killing 34 paratroops and wounding 66. Three of the dead had been platoon leaders.
On December 13 and 14, the 312th Division’s pressure relaxed. Thomazo pulled Mobile Group 4 back from Rocher Notre-Dame and advanced north to clear the Trung Ha-Yen Khoi region while the high command reinforced Dodelier’s Black River sector with Mobile Group 1, Armored Subgroup 1, the 1st Foreign Legion Paratroops, and the 1st Tank Battalion of the RBCEO. In conjunction with Thomazo’s Mobile Group 4, these forces were to conduct an envelopment operation designed to clear the 312th Division from the Ba Trai region and off the western slopes of Ba Vi mountain.
Colonel Dodelier decided to focus his initial efforts on clearing the Viet Minh forces in the Ba Trai forest. To do so, his forces needed to reach the Ap Da Chong to Dan The bypass while maintaining control of the road between Yen Cu and Ap Da Chong. This would cut off the 312th Division’s retreat across the Black River or south into the Ba Vi Mountain area. To block their northern escape, he assigned Armored Subgroup 1, reinforced with a battalion from Mobile Group 4, to blocking positions on the road between Cam Dai and Dan The. The task of controlling the road between Yen Cu and Ap Da Chong was assigned to a Paratroop Task Force under Lt. Col. Ducournau consisting of the 1st BEP, the 5th BPC and a platoon of tanks from the 1st Battalion, RBCEO. The North Africans of Colonel Edom’s Mobile Group 1 were to clear the road along the eastern route into the Ba Trai.
The northern and southern blocking forces took up their initial positions on December 15. As Edom’s Mobile Group cleared the eastern approaches into the Ba Trai forest, the unit ran into elements of the 312th Division near Xom Doi. The North Africans drove the Viet Minh off, only to run into them again at Hill 116, one kilometer northwest of Xom Doi. The 312th Division fought well, but superior French firepower and air support carried the day. By that evening, Mobile Group 1 had taken the heights.
Elements from the Black River sector pushed on to reach the hills overlooking the Black River, while Ducournau’s paratroops pushed westwards on the road leading to Ap Da Chong. By nightfall, the paratroops controlled the road. One firefight, requiring air and artillery support, left a Frenchman dead and 26 wounded. Viet Minh movements throughout the night prompted French Intelligence to believe that the 312th Division was withdrawing west of the Black River.
With the Ba Trai forest temporarily cleared and French blocking forces in position, Dodelier turned his attention to the western slopes of the Ba Vi, where Viet Minh forces still threatened Rocher Notre-Dame. On December 17, the French launched another pincers attack. This time a task force composed of the 1st BEP, the 2nd Battalion, 6th Moroccan Tirailleurs (2/6th RTM), and the 2nd Battalion, 1st Algerian Tirailleurs (2/1st RTA), launched an attack from west of Ba Vi Mountain to clear the Lang Gy depression. while the 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Battalion (2nd BEP) moved south from the Ap Da Chong–Yen Cu road to clear the heights under cover of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Moroccan Tirailleurs (3/4th RTM) and 5th BPC. Linkup between the two task forces took place without a hitch at 1500, leaving the 1st BEP, 5th BPC, and 3/4th RTM in control of the road to Ap Da Chong. While the 2nd BEP took up positions on Hill 564, Edom’s Mobile Group, along with Armored Subgroup 1, were withdrawn from the sector. Dodelier’s remaining task was to re-establish contact with the southern strongpoints, which had been cut off since December 11.
Once again, Dodelier called on Colonel Ducournau’s airborne task force. To accomplish that mission, Ducournau added the two Foreign Legion Parachute Battalions to the 5th Colonial Paras, the Moroccans of the 3/4th RTM, and the French and Vietnamese of Commando 35. On December 19, with the 1st BEP leading off from Ap Da Chong and the 2nd BEP from Hill 564, the task force swept south to link up with Rocher Notre-Dame. Viet Minh resistance was light. The two BEPs continued with a reconnaissance in force into the Xom Sui depression on December 20, recovering the dead left by the 1st Colonial Paras some 10 days earlier.
With the area temporarily clear, the French considered that the battle for the Black River was over. The airborne task force battle staff, 3/4th RTM, the 2nd BEP, and the 1st BPC were returned to Hanoi for general reserve duties.
Giap, however, ordered Colonel Vuong Thua Vu’s 308th Division into the Black River to relieve Tan’s 312th. By December 21, Regiments 102 and 36 had moved back into the Ba Trai forest.
At 1100 hours on December 21, Commando 35 stumbled across a Viet Minh bivouac south of the Yen Cu–Ap Da Chong road. An hour later, a patrol from the 5th BPC ran into a company supported by heavy weapons on Hill 82. Under heavy fire, the paras managed to break contact, but they were re-engaged by 1700, requiring air support to break contact and withdraw. On December 22, both Commando 35 and the 5th BPC came under heavy enemy attack at Hills 564 and 82 and were almost overrun.
A reconnaissance patrol was ambushed to the east of Luing Phu and Tach Xa, and legionnaires from the 1st BEP fell into an ambush some three kilometers south of Xom Bu. The BEP required two platoons of Sherman tanks and fighter-bomber support to break contact.
In the face of this new threat, General Salan reinforced the Black River sector with an airborne task force staff, the 2nd BEP, the 1st Vietnamese Parachute Battalion (1st BPVN), Edom’s Mobile Group 1, and two additional batteries of artillery. The 1st BPVN jumped one company into Rocher Notre-Dame on December 23, followed by the remainder of the battalion under the command of Captain Depont at Ap Phu Tho on December 24.
On December 24, the airborne task force, consisting of the 5th Colonial Paratroops, the 1st and 2nd BEPs, the 2/1st Algerian Tirailleurs and two platoons of Sherman tanks, was ordered to counterattack Regiments 102 and 36 and expel them from the sector. To do so, they planned a pincers movement by the two BEPs around Hill 82 while the 5th BPC covered them from the southeast. The 1st BEP encountered little difficulty, but the 2nd BEP ran into heavy enemy resistance at Hill 61 and then just below Hill 57. Under Viet Minh pressure, the 2nd BEP was pushed to the east. When the 2/1st Algerians moved in to reinforce them, they were hit on the flank. The Viet Minh then broke through to the road running north from Yen Cu to Cam Dai. While the 2nd BEP regroup at Hill 61 under cover of close air support, the Algerians regrouped toward Yen Cu. The fight had cost the 2nd BEP 12 killed and 31 wounded, while accounting for 300 Viet Minh killed.
In the face of continued Viet Minh resistance, it became clear that a major offensive was needed. Dodelier ordered his units to hold their positions while he launched French-led North Vietnamese reconnaissance units (Commandos-Army Forces North Vietnam) into the Ba Vi and Ba Trai regions. From December 25, 1951, to January 3, 1952, the commandos pinpointed various units of the 308th Division in the Ba Tai forest. These were hit with artillery and close air support, while the French built up their forces and made plans for a preliminary attack designed to draw off Viet Minh forces that could reinforce the sector.
Operation Nenuphar kicked off on January 4 and 5, 1952, with the Ducournau’s airborne task force, Edom’s Mobile Group 1, and Thomazo’s Mobile Group 4. In a repeat of previous operations, the paratroops took up blocking positions between Yen Cu and Ap Da Chong while Mobile Group 4 attacked to the south of Ngoc Nhi. Mobile Group 1 supported this with a diversionary attack against Tach Xa, and on January 6, Colonel de Rocquigny’s airborne staff from Hanoi, backed up by the 1st Colonial Paras, launched a deception operation toward Viet Minh staging depots at Viet Tri in hopes of forcing Viet Minh reserves to assemble around Phu Lu.
Nenuphar provided French forces with additional tactical successes in the Ba Trai forest, but Viet Minh forces remained firmly anchored in the area. The frank truth was that the Viet Minh strategy in the Black River was making the sector untenable. Convoys were finding it harder to break through to Hoa Binh, which was the raison d’?tre of the Black River garrisons in the first place.
Salan could only hope that the casualties inflicted on the Viet Minh would give his forces a respite to retake and hold those areas once the enemy had withdrawn. He had been functioning as overall commander in chief since November 20, since de Lattre had returned to France for cancer surgery. Operation Violette was therefore phrased as an offensive. From January 7 to 9, French forces would seek to destroy Viet Minh forces dug in on the slopes of the Ba Vi, while the garrisons at Rocher Notre-Dame, Hill 30, Xom Bu and Ap Da Chong were withdrawn under cover of their attack. The Black River sector with its remaining bases would then be reorganized and placed under the control of the Son Tay sector.
On January 7, while the 1st and 2nd BEPs, 5th BPC, and 4/7th Algerian Tirailleurs secured the roads between the Ba Trai forest and Ba Vi Mountain, the 2/1st and 2/6th Moroccan Tirailleurs, 2/1st Algerian Tirailleurs and Major Rieu’s 1st BPVN attacked Viet Minh forces dug in at Ba Vi. By nightfall of January 7, the Rocher Notre-Dame and Hill 30 garrisons had regrouped at Yen Cu. On January 8, the Xom Bu and Ap Da Chong garrisons joined them. On January 9, the covering forces were withdrawn, and on January 10 the operation was declared a success.
Many of the lieutenants and captains who fought in the campaign, however, saw it differently. They had won each battle, but only because they had been able to withdraw or reposition in order to avoid heavier casualties. Now the Black River was no longer an option for reinforcing Hoa Binh. In essence, the French had abandoned all posts along the river running between Xom Pheo and Dan The. News of the death of General de Lattre de Tassigny at the Neuilly military hospital in France on January 11 only deepened their sense of gloom.
Following his victory along the lower reaches of the Black River, Giap turned his attention to Colonial Route 6 and predicted that Hoa Binh would fall prior to the Lunar New Year. Neither Hoa Binh nor Route 6 had been quiet during the Black River fighting, but Viet Minh action had been limited to spoiling attacks against isolated garrisons and ambushes of French convoys. That changed in January 1952, as the 312th Division redeployed to Colonial Route 6 and Giap ordered in fresh reinforcements to fill the ranks of the 304th and 308th Divisions.
Colonial Route 6 started in Hanoi and ran west, where travel was secure until it reached Xuan Mai. From Xuan Mai the road traversed a heavily forested plateau criss-crossed with numerous steep ravines cut by streams and rivers until just west of Mo Thon, where it cut through a limestone massif filled with irregular valleys and steep cliffs. From Dong Ben, Route 6 cut through narrow valleys dominated by steep sides covered with dense vegetation, until it emerged to run parallel to the Black River between Xom Pheo and Ben Ngoc. At Ben Ngoc, convoys were ferried across the Black River to Hoa Binh.
The Colonial Route 6 sector was headquartered at Ao Trach. Elements from the 3rd Battalion, 1st Moroccan Tirailleurs (3/1st RTM), the 3rd Battalion, 13th Foreign Legion Demi-Brigade (3/13th DBLE), the 1st Tabors, the 8th Colonial Parachute Battalion (8th BPC), and Commando 19 manned posts scattered throughout sector, while a mobile reserve consisting of the 1st Colonial Cavalry Regiment (1st RCC), the 8th Algerian Spahis Regiment (8th RSA), and a platoon of automatic weapons carriers from the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco (RICM) moved between the posts.
Following the seizure of Hoa Binh, French patrols had continued to extend their presence throughout the Muong country. By concentrating on the Black River sector, Giap allowed the French an illusionary freedom of movement, subject to an occasional ambush by Viet Minh local or regional forces.
On December 2, a 40-truck ammunition convoy was ambushed near Dong Ben. The French drove their attackers off, but lost half the convoy. The same held true on December 7, when a company was ambushed at Lang Mo. The bodies of 20 Viet Minh were recovered. On December 13, however, a company from the 2nd BPC was hit hard, and lost eight paratroops killed, 19 wounded and two missing in action. A vehicle convoy was attacked west of Ao Trach on December 15, but again the Viet Minh were driven off. A December 22 riverine ambush near Lac Son in Colonial Route 6’s sector along the Black River proved equally serious. The navy lost an armored landing craft and three patrol craft.
By the end of December, French Intelligence noted increasing signs of Viet Minh regulars in the area. Regiment 66 was identified to the north of Route 6, with Regiment 9 to the east. Then various elements of the 308th and 312th divisions were plotted along the length of Route 6. On December 30, the post at Trung Du was attacked at midnight. Following a long night’s combat, Regiment 9 withdrew, leaving 160 bodies in the wire for the cost of four French troops killed and 31 wounded.
Then on January 7, the 308th Division launched four battalions against the 3/13th DBLE at Xom Pheo while diversionary attacks were mounted against Trung Du, Dong Ben and An Lap. The fighting lasted from midnight to 0600 the next morning. Legionnaires at Xom Pheo counted more than 800 Viet Minh dead in front of their positions. That same night, Viet Minh sappers infiltrated the defenses at Hoa Binh to destroy two 105mm howitzers, prompting an airborne drop by the 2nd BPC to reinforce the camp on January 8. Unlike previous drops, the air transports were met with anti-aircraft fire at both Hoa Binh and Xom Pheo, where a resupply drop took place. Eight aircraft were hit and four shot down. Hoa Binh was taking on the appearance of a camp under siege.
On January 8, the Viet Minh mortared the legionnaires at Xom Pheo and attacked Dong Ben. They were driven back, but by January 9 major Viet Minh forces had dug in on the heights overlooking Kem Pass and the routes leading from Ao Trach. During the night of January 9, the 304th Division and Regiment 88 of the 308th Division launched harassing attacks against all French posts in sector and then withdrew to cut the road. By January 11, Colonial Route 6 had been shut down. The French fell back on aerial resupply, while reinforcements were pulled in from other areas to drive Giap’s Divisions from Colonial Route 6.
With the death of de Lattre (he was posthumously raised to the rank of marshal of France) and Salan’s elevation to commander in chief, responsibility for the Hoa Binh campaign now rested on General Gonzales de Linares, an old soldier held in high regard by the junior officers and NCOs of the French Expeditionary Corps. Given the limitations of the forces available to him and requirements elsewhere, de Linares could only see one way to take back Colonial Route 6, and that was piece by piece, from east to west, clearing each subsector as he went.
Phase One, the clearing of the road between Xuan Mai and Ao Trach, kicked off on January 10, 1952, with the assembly of the 1st and 2nd BEPs and 2/1st RTM at Xuan Mai. Viet Minh forces consisted of elements of the 9th and 57th regiments to the west and east of Kem Pass, with possible reinforcement by elements of the 308th Division. By January 11, under Colonel de Rocquigny, this task force had cleared as far as Mo Thon with assistance from sector troops from Chuc Son. From Mo Thon, de Rocquigny ordered the 1st BEP to push into the Suc Sich region while the 2nd BEP moved toward Hill 202 and the 2/1st Moroccans pushed along Route 6. Thick vegetation prevented the 2nd BEP from keeping to the time schedule, but the 1st BEP cleared the northern side of the road, allowing the 2/1st Moroccans to reach Hill 54 by 1730 without running into any serious enemy resistance.
While de Rocquigny’s group moved west, two companies from the 8th BPC and a company from the 3/1st Moroccans moved east to link up with them from Ao Thach. As they moved through Kem Pass, they were hit by Regiment 57 and driven back with 25 killed and 25 wounded. De Rocquigny was reinforced with the 7th Colonial Paras (7th BPC) and the 2nd Battery, 64th Artillery, at Xuan Mai while the 1st BEP dug in on the northern heights of Mo Son, the 2/1st Moroccans at Suc Sich and the 2nd BEP at Mo Thon and Hillock 125.
On January 12, as de Rocqigny’s task force was clearing both sides of the road from Bai Lang and a newly created Group B (3rd/1st Moroccans, 2nd BEP and Commandos 5 and 7) provided security along the route from Mo Thon to Hill 54, the 7th BPC ran into two battalions of Viet Minh at Hill 202. Following heavy fighting, they were forced to dig in for the night. As darkness fell, they were hit with heavy attacks on their western and southern flanks. Despite the seeming desperation of the situation, casualties were light. The paratroops lost two killed and 11 wounded for 119 Viet Minh dead left on the battlefield. On January 13, the 2nd BEP reinforced the 7th BPC at Hill 202, while the mobile elements pushed forward along the road to reach Ao Trach. With this section of the road clear, de Rocquigny passed control of the 1st BEP to the 2nd Armored Subgroup in command of the subsector at Ao Trach.
The longest section of the road was now clear, but the roughest terrain lay ahead. Clearing Viet Minh forces between Dong Ben and Xom Pheo required several stages to accomplish. The first step was to re-establish communications on the road between Ao Trach and Xom Pheo by controlling the heights of the Dong Ben depression, Hillock 4 and the rock bluffs known as Quarry Heights, all held by strong Viet Minh forces. Between January 14 and 17, Colonel Gilles reorganized his sector’s defenses in order to release more units for mobile operations. Mobile Group 1, now commanded by Colonel de Castries, would secure the road between Xuan Mai and Bai Lang, de Rocquigny’s paratroops between Bai Lang and Kem Pass, and Route 6 sector troops between Kem Pass and Ao Trach.
On January18, an attack by the 1st BEP, 8th BPC, 2/1st Moroccans, a company (Goum) of the 1st Tabors, and the 19th Engineer Company was stopped cold at hillock 4. As the 1st BEP moved forward on the right wing, they came under heavy Viet Minh attack, losing 15 dead, 2 missing and 48 wounded. The 60th Goum of the 1st Tabors tried to reinforce the legionnaires but were pinned down under the limestone cliffs while the 8th BPC engaged heavy Viet Minh forces at Dong Giang on the left side of the French line of advance.
In the face of mounting casualties, de Rocquigny ordered all units to pull back and dig in. Two days later, reinforced by the 7th BPC and massive artillery fire, he renewed his attack. The 7th BPC took the objective at 1340.
French attention now turned to Quarry Heights and the Ba Xet spur, which commanded the Dong Ben plain. Here they hoped to draw the Viet Minh into a series of attacks to wear down their forces. On January 21, the French installed solid positions between Ao Trach and hillock 4, and on January 22, sent out the 8th BPC, reinforced by a platoon of Chaffee tanks, to bait the Viet Minh into an attack. The Viet Minh obliged the 8th BPC task force east of Quarry Heights, giving French artillery and close air support a chance to inflict heavy casualties. After that, the task force withdrew to Ao Trach.
On January 23, Colonel de Rocquigny readjusted his organization to reconstitute mobile units. The 2/1st Moroccan Tirailleurs replaced the paratroops, who then prepared for an attack into the Quarry Heights region to sweep enemy forces from the area and establish an outpost. On the morning of January 24, the paratroops launched their attack. The 7th and 8th Colonial Paratroops advanced on both sides of Colonial Route 6 while paralegionnaires of the 1st BEP kept pace along the road itself. At 1400, as the BEP approached Bridge 15, Regiment 66 hit the 1st BEP with a close-in rush attack.
Legionnaires and Viet Minh regulars were soon mixed in hand-to-hand combat, limiting French artillery fire to Viet Minh reinforcements moving in from the north and southwest. Regiment 66’s attack was beaten back, but they remained heavily entrenched on Quarry Heights. When it became clear that he could not take Quarry Heights before nightfall, de Rocquigny opted to pull his forces back while casualties were still light and prepare for a counterattack. He had lost some five killed and 33 wounded for an estimated 800 Viet Minh casualties. Colonel Gilles, commanding the sector, ordered his own troops to conduct a relief in place with de Rocquigny’s paratroops while he received Mobile Group 1 and the 2/1st Algerian Tirailleurs as reinforcements to conduct a larger-scale attack to seize and hold the area around Quarry Heights.
Operation Melinite, on January 28 and 29, managed to do just that. The 2/1st Algerians took Quarry Heights, while the 4/7th RTA reached the Ba Xet spur. The 4/7th RTA was thrown back from the spur by a determined Viet Minh counterattack, but the 2/1st Algerians held on to Quarry Heights despite the best efforts of a battalion from Regiment 9. Control of Quarry Heights should have given the French tactical control of Colonial Route 6. But while French engineers and infantry set to work clearing trees and brush from both sides of the highway, Giap was repositioning his forces for a new series of attacks against French positions.
On January 30, 1952, the Viet Minh went back on the offensive throughout the Colonial Route 6 sector. Fighting was heaviest at Suc Sich, where two battalions tried to overrun the 16th Company of the 8th Colonial Paratroops. At a cost of four paratroops killed and 17 wounded, the colonial paras killed 101 Viet Minh and captured 14 others before driving off the remainder. Once again, French artillery and close air support had proved crucial.
Although the French now controlled Colonial Route 6 and still held Hoa Binh, Salan was coming to the conclusion that the tail was wagging the dog. While the Black River was still nominally French, convoys could no longer use it, and it had taken 20 days of fighting to open 40 kilometers of Colonial Route 6. Worse, keeping the road open was costing far more than it was worth. True French control only extended from Hanoi as far as Xuan Mai. From Don Goi west to Hoa Binh, French outposts constituted a series of land islands in a hostile terrestrial sea. While the Viet Minh could not move through the French-controlled islands, they could still move around them, and manning those positions was tying down over 20,000 men. Had the Vietnamese army developed earlier, Salan might have had the manpower he required. But with the state of that fledgling army in 1952, he had to rely on legionnaires, paratroops, colonial infantry and North Africans. All this to keep a single line of communication open.
Colonial Route 4 had demonstrated the dangers of that situation, and Salan needed his elite troops for defense of the Tonkin Delta. When French Intelligence reported in mid-January that Giap had temporarily withdrawn the 304th, 308th and 312th divisions to undergo rest and refitting for an offensive against Hoa Binh and that the 316th and 320th divisions were infiltrating the Red River delta, Salan decided to cut his losses and withdraw. On February 5, 1952, he ordered his staff to prepare a plan for the evacuation of Hoa Binh, which was accomplished between February 14 and 25, 1952.
From November 10, 1951, until February 25, 1952, Hoa Binh cost French Union forces 436 killed, 458 missing in action, and 2,060 wounded. The Viet Minh lost 3,455 killed, 307 taken prisoner and more than 7,000 wounded. Both sides would lose more casualties in later battles, but Hoa Binh was the watershed of the First Indochina War. Like American commanders who came after them, the French had laid out a series of actions whose accomplishment went more or less according to plan. And yet Hoa Binh had been a defeat. The French had set out to go on the offensive, but ended up on the defensive. They had intended to draw the Viet Minh into a fight on their terms, yet ended up by having to fight them on theirs. Despite the heavy casualties inflicted, the Viet Minh kept coming back for more. French tactical successes were in no small part due to the close proximity support.
Even the weather, while at times limiting, had generally been to the French Union force’s advantage. The lesson was plainly there for all to see. If the weather turned bad, if the French extended themselves beyond the line of timely air support, then Viet Minh mass could overcome French advantages in flexibility, coordination and superior means of fire support. Both Salan and Giap, as well as their staffs, must have taken note of this.
Salan, for his part, would again draw Viet Minh units away from the Red River delta and into a similar campaign at Na San. Giap would respond, but Salan was wise enough to withdraw before the weather turned against him. But then Salan and his staff would leave Indochina, to be replaced by General Henri Navarre and a new crop of faces, many of whom had not learned the lessons of Hoa Binh. Indeed, by the time anyone mentioned Dien Bien Phu, most of the commanders and staffs who really remembered the lessons of Hoa Binh were all in the Viet Minh.
This article was written by Lt. Col. Darragh and and was originally published in the October 1998 issue of Vietnam magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Vietnam Magazine today!