The battle between the French and Communists for control of Hanoi in 1946-1947 sparked Vietnam’s decades-long national nightmare.
Everything was going to start at 8 P.M. sharp. At least that was what the French expected. Some record that as a rumor, but in his report submitted a few weeks later, Major General Louis Morlière, commander of French forces in northern Vietnam, the region known as Tonkin, asserted he had real intelligence of an impending onslaught—including some he had personally gathered—and insisted there was no surprise attack on Hanoi on December 19, 1946. Indeed Fernand Petit, a Eurasian spy who had infiltrated the Vietnamese militia, reported that an assault was planned for that night.
Standard procedure was to give the troops liberty until 9 P.M., when they were required to be in barracks, but on December 19 Morlière ordered everyone to be inside the Hanoi garrison by 5 o’clock. Jean Sainteny, France’s political delegate to Tonkin, in Hanoi hoping to resume negotiations with officials of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, was in his office near the Yersin Hospital that evening. An attack had been rumored for several days, he later recalled, but there had been many such rumors—Morlière reported having been told the attack would begin on each of the preceding fifteen days. When the Yersin clock struck 8 and all remained quiet, Sainteny decided to quit work. “Apparently it’s not for tonight,” he told his staff. “I’m going home.”
Sainteny had barely gotten into his car when the rumble of a distant explosion rent the night and darkness descended on Hanoi. The city’s power plant had been sabotaged, marking the beginning of a desperate passage for the French in Tonkin, as well as the final onset of the Franco-Vietnamese War—the French War, as the Vietnamese like to call it—the active military phase of a revolution that would eventually drag the United States into its throes.
That night in December culminated a long, delicate dance. The French—outright imperialists and moderates—had been maneuvering with Vietnamese nationalists and Communists, who for more than a year had been struggling to define their relationship to France in the post–World War II era and in the context of French attempts to return to ruling the former colony, Indochina.
Charles de Gaulle relinquished France’s government to the first cabinet of the Fourth Republic only days before the attack on Hanoi. De Gaulle had made efforts to re-create an empire by liberalizing it as the French Union. Vietnam could be a member. Yet the Vietnamese had asserted the independence of their Democratic Republic of Vietnam as early as August 1945.
There were no French troops in Indochina then, and the French had returned to Tonkin only by dint of a diplomatic agreement with the Democratic Republic that Jean Sainteny had negotiated on March 6, 1946. That document had recognized Vietnam’s independence within the French Union, a bit of clever lawyering that ultimately only bought time. In a succession of diplomatic encounters, the French balked at according Vietnamese the appurtenances of true independence.
Sainteny stood among those who believed France should accommodate Vietnamese independence. However, Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, de Gaulle’s high commissioner for Indochina, a conservative admiral and bishop, had no use for independence and became a major stumbling block to peaceful resolution. Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh took a Democratic Republic delegation to France, but made no progress.
Vietnamese military commander Vo Nguyen Giap led another Democratic Republic delegation to a meeting with French diplomats at Dalat, where he gave an impassioned oration on his life and the Vietnamese revolution, and frankly warned that war would come if they could not reach agreement. The French viewed Giap as a hothead; their military delegate, the yet-to-become-famous General Raoul Salan, christened Giap a “snow-topped volcano” and rejected his warnings.
All through the summer and fall of 1946, relations steadily deteriorated. French troops acting under d’Argenlieu’s instructions repeatedly extended their control beyond boundaries permitted by the March 6 agreement and took other actions subverting it. The final straw came in November. In Haiphong, the port city on the Tonkin Gulf about sixty miles from Hanoi, French authorities asserted the right to collect customs duties, setting off an incident that led to forcible French occupation of the city and a bombardment by the French heavy cruiser Suffren that killed more than two thousand Vietnamese. After that, war seemed just a matter of time.
Sainteny thought he was engaged in a last-ditch effort to avert war. Not involved in the talks where France had been so intransigent, and responsible for one of the few real successes—the March 6 agreement—Sainteny had credibility. He arrived in Saigon on November 26, but General Jean Valluy initially prevented his traveling on to Tonkin, ostensibly to keep his mission from being tainted by the Haiphong fighting. Valluy, the French commander in chief, was deputizing for d’Argenlieu, who had gone to Paris to demand reinforcements. A less charitable interpretation would be that the advocates of war, who then controlled France, wanted Sainteny present to ensure that all French political tendencies were complicit in the opening of hostilities, and delayed his arrival in Tonkin to guarantee he would be unable to put out the fires Haiphong ignited. While Valluy told Sainteny the delay was out of concern for his success, the general cabled Admiral d’Argenlieu on November 27, emphasizing the need for troops no matter what Paris decided.
Sainteny arrived at Hanoi’s airfield, Gia Lam, on December 2. Most top officials from both sides met him, with Giap leading the Vietnamese coterie. Ho Chi Minh, in bed with a high fever, received him the next day. Both knew the hour was late. D’Argenlieu’s instructions to Sainteny were moderate—he should not take over the old Governor General’s Palace to avoid offending the Vietnamese—but vague on political concessions and hard-line on outcomes: Ho Chi Minh could remain at the head of the Democratic Republic government, but his top henchmen had to go.
The Democratic Republic and the Viet Minh National Front, Ho’s political movement that disguised its Communist core, wanted a return to strict adherence to the March 6 agreement that Sainteny had no authority to give. In the middle of this negotiation, on December 12 the Socialist government of Léon Blum took office in Paris. Blum publicly affirmed his intention to resolve the crisis by recognizing Vietnamese independence but sent no formal directive, giving Sainteny no guidance at a critical moment.
Ho addressed a final appeal to Blum, which was delayed in transmission by the high commissioner’s office in Saigon for almost two weeks, until hostilities had begun—the latest of many truncated negotiating efforts that marked the Vietnamese wars.
General Morlière was caught between tremendous forces. On December 8, Valluy ordered him to do everything to avoid hostilities, at least until mid-January, when the commander anticipated having sufficient troops to settle matters. But Admiral d’Argenlieu needled Morlière the very next day as to why his units had not cleared the roadblocks and obstacles the Viet Minh had begun setting up in the city, demanding that he respond more energetically.
On December 15, d’Argenlieu ordered the move. Valluy, Morlière, and other senior French officers conferred at Haiphong on December 16. French troops crossed a barricade in Hang Bun Street in the Yen Ninh quarter the next day and fired into the local Viet Minh headquarters. The French saw this as punishment for the ambush of a supply truck on the Rue Jaubert in which several soldiers had died. They also began clearing barricades in Lo Duc Street, using armored vehicles for the first time.
The paratroopers of the Special Air Service Demibrigade learned that one of their number, who had gone missing a few days earlier, had been murdered. They had lost two killed and three wounded in the barricade incident. The Vietnamese accused the French of shooting at policemen in Precinct VIII and of killing two militiamen of the joint Franco-Vietnamese guard at the Yen Phu power plant. On December 18, the French occupied the Democratic Republic ministries of finance and public works. Morlière issued an ultimatum for the Viet Minh to disarm their forces.
Vietnamese civilians streamed out of the city. Despite its population of one hundred thirty thousand—among them perhaps seven thousand European or Eurasian citizens, eleven thousand Chinese, and small numbers of other nationalities—Sainteny said Hanoi resembled a desert. He noted increasingly frequent assassinations and violence, and said he understood the people’s fear.
On the morning of December 19, Sainteny sent Ho a letter protesting recent incidents, and received one from the Democratic Republic leader asking him to meet immediately with a top Ho associate who had previously served as a go-between. Sainteny set the encounter for the next morning. “I was never to know what Ho Chi Minh wanted to say to me,” Sainteny wrote. “As far as I was concerned, there was no December 20.”
As the atmosphere grew more and more tense, Ho asked Giap how long Hanoi could resist if war came. Giap replied that his Vietnam People’s Army could fight for perhaps a month. Ho said he would be satisfied with a week or two.
A former Japanese officer now with the People’s Army suggested a scheme based on successive defense lines. The Viet Minh rejected it. They needed a plan that got the most out of their Tu Ve self-defense forces, effectively militia. At a late November conference between the party’s Standing Central Committee and the military command, Vuong Thua Vu, who had just been appointed to lead the Hanoi region, came up with a plan “to attack the enemy inside and to surround them from the outside.” Vu saw this as “a dual tactical method dangerous for our foes.”
The five available regular battalions would initiate surprise attacks. After a few days contesting the city, one battalion plus about three thousand Tu Ve troops would hole up in the Vietnamese Quarter while the other regulars withdrew to Hanoi’s suburbs. They would execute a fighting retreat with five thousand other militia.
On December 9, Giap ordered bridges and roads mined for demolition. Four days later the Defense Ministry and military high command issued final instructions at a meeting of regional leaders. By mid-December, as he assured Ho, Giap felt confident that he could hold Hanoi for a month or more.
Giap visited Hoan Kiem ward and saw throngs of people volunteering for guard units, medical teams, and supply elements. They drilled bores in trees lining the streets so sticks of dynamite could be quickly inserted to blow the trees down and block the boulevards. Trams were left in strategic locations to be overturned for impromptu roadblocks. They built earthen walls, strengthened by stakes driven into the ground. They knocked holes through the walls of houses so the Viet Minh could move about without using the streets. They also prepared to use the sewer system for underground movements. The Vietnamese tried to tunnel under the Majestic Theater and the Hotel Metropole and plant explosives, but they ran out of time.
On the night of December 18, an expanded standing committee of the Indochinese Communist Party met at the village of Van Phuc and decided to strike. The committee sent out an alert the next morning. That afternoon Giap made the rounds of his forces. At 4 P.M. he convened top commanders at the outlying suburb of Bach Mai and confidently issued his orders.
In truth, Giap was working with a shoestring budget. His entire army (according to French historians) had perhaps seventy-two thousand soldiers in thirty-six infantry and three artillery regiments. (French intelligence credited only forty to forty-five thousand.) Yet he had only about a thousand automatic weapons, and rifles for fewer than half the soldiers. A typical regiment might have three or four machine guns. The People’s Army’s fifty-five guns were small-caliber weapons, for which they had limited ammunition. Much of the equipment came from Japanese stocks abandoned or liberated in 1945, though the OSS had given the Vietnamese fifty-five hundred American Garand M-1 rifles. Many soldiers carried primitive weapons—swords, nineteenth-century-vintage rifles and pistols, even homemade pikes. These were the forces for all of Indochina, not just Hanoi, and most of them were Tu Ve.
In Hanoi Giap had a few regulars at the Governor’s Palace, in a downtown encampment, on the Paul Doumer Bridge over the Red River, and out toward Gia Lam, plus perhaps eight thousand Tu Ve in two “divisions.” Overall there were approximately ten thousand five hundred troops, more than manned the French garrison but not as well armed. A third Tu Ve division was stationed nearby at Ha Dong. Vietnamese sources put the regular force battalions at 2,515 troops with fifteen hundred rifles, one bazooka, and four machine guns. They had only about a dozen bullets per rifle and just a few hundred hand grenades.
The militiamen had barely eleven hundred rifles for their entire force. Along the edge of the city were five gun emplacements with seven 75mm anti-aircraft “batteries” (probably guns), one 75mm fieldpiece, and one 25mm howitzer, all of Japanese provenance. It was not much with which to start a war.
The French had their own problems. The March 6 agreement had strictly limited the locations and size of French garrisons in Tonkin. Hanoi was permitted a brigade-size force. Valluy and Morlière had gradually gone beyond that limit, and they sent more reinforcements after the Haiphong incident, but as of December 19 they had only about forty-five hundred troops under sector commandant Colonel Raoul Herkel. (Vietnamese sources put the number at six thousand.)
The most experienced were units of the 21st Colonial Infantry Regiment and Major Louis de Kergaravat’s 1st Battalion of the 6th Colonial Infantry Regiment. Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Paris de Bollardière’s Special Air Service had only been in place a few weeks and really amounted to a reinforced battalion—most of the brigade’s 2nd Battalion plus a rifle company and the headquarters of its 1st. Morlière had a tank contingent: two squadrons of the Mobile Armored Group, a composite unit that had supported the Expeditionary Corps throughout Indochina since its arrival in late 1945.
The Japanese greatly influenced the early Viet Minh. Japanese officers and deserters served as their trainers and technical experts. Their influence is shown in the Hanoi coup de force, which took place at four minutes past the hour, the precise time when Japan in March 1945 had begun its operation to overthrow the French colonial regime that it previously had worked with in Indochina.
The Viet Minh did all the fighting. Vietnamese workers led by a party activist named Giang had smuggled in explosives to disable the power plant, signaling the start of operations. Giap’s guns opened a limited bombardment. More important were satchel charges—“Sicilian vespers” the French called them—detonating all around. The People’s Army began its attacks: Five regular battalions each had half a dozen or so targets for their immediate raids. Detachments would defend the Governor General’s Palace, City Hall, and the post office as long as possible. To preserve the poorly armed Tu Ve, the larger portion of this force, ostentatiously deployed into Hanoi over preceding weeks to deceive the French, immediately began to withdraw. Vuong Thua Vu, political officer Tran Do, and their staff calculated water, food, and ammunition requirements down to the last bullet.
About twelve hundred French troops were away from their units at the battle’s start. That weakened defenses, and the French were astonished when a few Viet Minh managed to penetrate the east ern wall of the Citadel. Some Frenchmen were captured. At the Hotel Metropole, which served as the mess for the Special Air Service paratroops, the French had only light weapons when they were besieged by Ho Chi Minh’s elite guards from the nearby Governor’s Palace, although the paras managed to hold off the attack.
Bollardière sent a unit of his Special Air Service paratroopers to sustain the bridge across the Canal des Rapides. Vietnamese atop the Municipal Theater shot up the Eden Theater, near the Metropole, and dominated the Rue Borgnis-Desbordes. Others opposite the Majestic Theater fired on that building.
The Viet Minh bypassed Sûreté headquarters, to the relief of its Tonkin chief, M. Moret, but mounted two attacks—one through the grounds of Yersin Hospital—on the high commissioner’s local offices, where Sainteny had been not long before. The attack terrified patients at the Lanessan Military Hospital. A wounded French lieutenant organized some Senegalese corpsmen to defend it with an automatic rifle. Fortunately for the French, Giap’s units had left Lanessan off their hit list. A map recovered from the body of a dead Viet Minh fighter diagrammed a good dozen routes of attack in just the area of the city around the Little Lake.
Soon after Sainteny reached home, General Morlière sent an armored car to take him to French headquarters at the Hanoi Citadel. That vehicle was blown up in the Rue Borgnis-Desbordes. Sainteny suffered multiple injuries and lay in the street for two hours before rescuers reached him. Some forty-three French soldiers died in Hanoi that night, with many more wounded. Morlière estimated that sixty civilians were killed as well, but some sources list up to ten times that number. The Viet Minh also kidnapped about two hundred Europeans, including forty-nine women and almost a hundred children, whom they held as hostages.
One key Vietnamese objective was the Paul Doumer Bridge, the sixteen-hundred-meter structure spanning the Red River. Without it there was no way to reach the French outpost at Gia Lam airfield. In addition, any French relief force from Haiphong would have to follow Colonial Route 5 and cross at that same place. Lieutenant Loison’s detachment of colonial infantry shared guard duty there with the Vietnamese. Those guards disappeared, returning to attack the French at about 8:30 P.M. The Viet Minh set off a half-dozen satchel charges. The Vietnamese later reported that their explosives at the Doumer Bridge failed, as they did in other places, “due to faulty manufacture.” The attackers then turned to ripping up some of the planks that formed the roadbed.
The Vietnamese failed to drive off Loison’s men. An armored group under Captain Thorel repulsed them, but its lead vehicle plunged headlong into the Red River. Despite the ensuing traffic jam, the Vietnamese could not hold onto their toehold. The French post at the Shell Oil storage facility also held out, though the Viet Minh successfully blew up a lesser fuel and ammunition depot at Cua Dong.
With first light the next morning, Morlière sent a column across the Doumer Bridge to Gia Lam. Lieutenant Florian Camus’ Special Air Service paratroops reached the airfield (the Vietnamese had not attacked the field itself), where Camus linked up with Major Pierre Langlais’ bataillon de marche of the 9th Colonial Infantry, airlifted from Haiphong. The battalion had been carried to Tonkin aboard the cruiser Suffren, arriving at the height of the Haiphong incident.
The French made some strikes of their own. One was a commando attack at dawn on the Governor’s Palace, carried out by a paratroop company from the Metropole, supported by two 75mm guns, tanks, and armored cars. According to some reports, Ho himself was almost captured in this assault, though this seems unlikely given his position outside the city the night before.
General Giap, with People’s Army Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai and a Central Committee representative, came to Vuong Thua Vu’s headquarters in the morning. Giap had ordered the artillery to be prepared to fire in support when the French attacked the Governor’s Palace. When reports arrived of the assault in progress, Giap remarked the time had come. Vu simply picked up a telephone and, waving his hand, shouted “Fire!” Giap could not believe the Hanoi region commander had not designated the target. Vu explained the guns were so few that their targets had been set in advance.
Fighting at the palace continued into the evening of December 20. Finally People’s Army political officer Le Gia Dinh ordered survivors of his Tu Ve company to leave and help defend the nearby Opera House. Dinh remained as the rear guard, arming an explosive charge to detonate as the French entered. The bomb failed, but Dinh kept shooting. He would be honored posthumously for taking ten French soldiers with him. The French captured files and records at the Democratic Republic offices. At the Opera, two Viet Minh platoons held on a little longer.
Back in France, Léon Blum saw Indochina policy collapsing before his eyes. He sent a last-minute appeal to Ho and ordered the Expeditionary Corps to stop shooting. But the French general staff worded its cable so that General Valluy could interpret he was to “suspend arms” only if that did not compromise the safety of French troops and civilians. Valluy promptly replied, “I cannot honestly see any means to arrive at a suspension of arms.”
By this time—December 21—many of the Viet Minh had disengaged to assume their defensive positions. The French had cleared many enemy troops out of the European quarter by noon the previous day, but Viet Minh held both the electric plant and the waterworks, and other pockets of resistance remained. For example, Special Air Service troops moved to stiffen a 21st Colonial Infantry outpost on the outskirts when the Viet Minh attacked it on December 20. The next day the British consul in Hanoi was unable to leave his house due to gunfire outside.
Vo Nguyen Giap never expected to be able to destroy the French in Hanoi. Rather, he aimed to disrupt their response. Giap and Vu visited the front line, creeping through houses near the Shell Oil depot. Giap told Vu the Hanoi defenders needed even more trenches and barricades.
Vu’s inside-outside plan took effect immediately. Giap reorganized the command structure, placing the outside forces under the Ha Dong region, which he enlarged to include Hanoi as a means of bringing more forces to bear. Hoang Sam and Le Hien Mai became the commander and political officer, respectively, of the enlarged region, with Vuong Thua Vu and Tran Do serving as their deputies. Vu and Do continued to lead the troops inside Hanoi.
The People’s Army 101st Battalion under Hoang Sieu Hai plus the Tu Ve made up the core of the inside force. They pulled back into the Sino-Vietnamese quarter, a neighborhood they knew as “36 Streets,” above the Little Lake and east of the Citadel, where the Doumer Bridge crossed. One of Hai’s companies in Yen Phu Street remained cut off.
On December 22, Giap committed an outside regular battalion in Hanoi’s southern suburbs to distract the French while Hai consolidated defenses. There, the People’s Army had stocked food for three months, most of its ammunition and grenades, and many Molotov cocktails. The defenders used two radios to communicate with Viet Minh headquarters.
By dark on December 22, the French were surrounded, hemmed in on three sides against their lifeline to Gia Lam, but superior in force to the People’s Army. The next day French loudspeaker trucks drove through cleared portions of Hanoi blaring out the message that anyone not in uniform carrying a weapon would be shot. Every house not showing a white flag would be searched. The French called the Vietnamese Quarter the “Rabbit Warren.”
The Viet Minh countered French propaganda with their own. On December 22, they began publishing a newspaper called Thu Do (“Capital City”). Three days later the Central Committee confirmed the new alignment of the military regions. Inside the quarter conditions were relatively good—Vietnamese sources record that people could eat out at Chinese-owned restaurants, many of which stayed open through this part of the campaign. The shops were busy too. But roughly six thousand civilians lived in the quarter, and food supplies soon diminished.
Viet Minh defenders conducted a classic urban guerrilla battle: ambushing French patrols, luring the enemy into cul-de-sacs where they could be pinned down, moving discreetly between houses by using secret passageways. Mobile units shuttled toward threatened sectors. A dozen groups of People’s Army regulars attacked French tanks and sallied outside the quarter, while volunteers made up special guerrilla units for each street.
Giap sent weapons and ammunition from an underground factory in Ha Dong, and medicine from the Viet Minh hospital at Van Dien. A path along the dikes down the Red River remained as a link between the inside and outside. The French meanwhile installed a civil servant named Larivière as Hanoi’s mayor. Foreign diplomats estimated Vietnamese casualties had been above two thousand.
This was the new battle of Hanoi, one where the French gradually beat down Tu Ve resistance. Sainteny, on leaving the hospital, cabled that objectives that should have been secured within hours were only reached after the fifth day of fighting. He added that he believed “the definitive test of force is underway.” General Valluy radioed Morlière that he understood Hanoi’s difficulties: “The army of a government that has refused our friendship has attacked you perfidiously. It has jumped blindly into the battle with all its forces. The shock is hard, as will be their death, but you have seen others. Economize your means, above all your munitions. Make every cartridge count. Soon you will be reinforced, resupplied, we will devote all our effort, and those hordes will be reduced mercilessly.”
On Christmas Day, Valluy ordered Morlière not to stint on cannons and bombs. This marked the end of restraint in military operations. Valluy wanted to demonstrate—quickly—“the superiority of our means.”
For France, the Haiphong incident in November had been a huge political and military disaster in spite of its military dominance and short-term success, as Morlière was perfectly aware. With Haiphong already a bloodbath, destroying Hanoi would have been worse; many more civilians were at risk, and the eyes of the world were now on Indochina. General Morlière quietly ignored Valluy’s demands, instructing Colonel Herkel to avoid using heavy armaments without specific approval. Morlière had the authority to enforce those orders. The command structure of the Expeditionary Corps divided Indochina into four zones. All of Tonkin was under the Troupes Françaises d’Indochine du Nord at Hanoi, headed by General Morlière. But Valluy would eventually have his way, countermanding Morlière’s orders and replacing him with the former Haiphong commander, Colonel Pierre Dèbes.
Meanwhile, bombed or not, fires raged in Hanoi and plenty of buildings were demolished in raging block-to-block fighting. Ten civilians were burned alive in their homes. Posts were in danger as well. To relieve Bac Ninh and Phu Lang Thuong, Lieutenant Colonel Giraud led a column of the 21st Colonial backed by a pair of 105mm howitzers, with two platoons of Special Air Service paratroops and a company of the 6th Colonial Infantry as a shock force. They left Gia Lam on December 23.
Once Giraud left, the Viet Minh struck Gia Lam itself on Christmas Eve and staged another raid against the Doumer Bridge. Colonel Giraud reached his objectives, but the French pulled back the entire force to defend the airfield, with French Supermarine Spitfires flying from Gia Lam providing air support. Giraud returned on January 2, 1947, having lost two dead and eighteen wounded.
On the western side of Hanoi, another French unit remained encircled and pinned down along a tributary of the Red River for several days. According to Vietnamese historian Chau Dien, the French became so desperate in early January that they disguised themselves as Vietnamese to attack the village of Luu Xa under cover of dense fog. The defending militia company panicked. Shell splinters severed the leg of Vu Cong Dinh, the Viet Minh commander. Dinh stayed behind with a nurse, effectively slowing down the French while the Tu Ve escaped.
The Expeditionary Corps sent reinforcements. On New Year’s Day, Captain Ducasse’s compagnie de marche of the Special Air Service arrived at Gia Lam from Saigon, and a week later came the rest of the 1st SAS. The paratroopers joined Bollardière’s demibrigade to mount Operation Dédale, the first combat airdrop of the Indochina war, designed to save the French garrison at Nam Dinh, a city of eighty thousand in the Red River delta, where most of Major Daboval’s colonial infantry were under siege.
The Viet Minh reported that they treated the Chinese and other foreigners courteously, and even celebrated the Tet new year with a party. Chinese Consul General Yuen Tse-kien served as intermediary between French and Viet Minh authorities. American diplomat Charles Reed reported talk of a Viet Minh proposal to withdraw from Hanoi.
Reed felt the French were considering this, but Admiral d’Argenlieu had returned to Saigon on December 23 and soon induced Paris envoy Marius Moutet to agree that since Ho and the Democratic Republic ministries had left Hanoi, there was no one with whom to negotiate. American Secretary of State George Marshall informed the French that the United States had no desire to mediate. In Paris Moutet told U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery, “it is essential that the French carry out successful military activities at a very early date.” The French unleashed an offensive on December 30 in the Hanoi suburbs, but it took several weeks to force the last People’s Army troops not encircled in the 36 Streets to retreat.
On December 31, Washington instructed John O’Sullivan, its consul in Hanoi, to cooperate with the Chinese negotiator. The Viet Minh released some of their hostages early in January. Yuen secured a brief cease-fire in mid-January to permit safe passage for those who wished to leave. An estimated six thousand Vietnamese and five hundred Chinese left during Consul Yuen’s truce.
The Viet Minh wanted to smuggle out most of their troops under cover of this evacuation, expecting to retain a hard core of perhaps five hundred defenders, but afterward discovered that as many as twelve hundred troops had stayed on. Another ten thousand Chinese, six hundred Hindus, and unknown numbers of Vietnamese remained. Renewed fighting disrupted contacts among the foreign consuls at the very moment diplomatic action might have proven decisive.
With the French lifeline running through Gia Lam airfield, that became a key battleground. Viet Minh troops that had dug in around the air base managed to shoot down several Spitfires and remained a constant threat to aircraft landing or taking off. Until a relief column reopened overland communications, Hanoi depended completely on air supply.
The French used German-built Junkers Ju-52 transports, most from Haiphong. Some days there were as many as one hundred fifty landings. On January 11-12, the French mounted an operation to clear the environs of the base. Several days later the Viet Minh responded by raiding the field, and the security measures failed.
By February, the Viet Minh had made two major assaults on Gia Lam, both by so-called death-braving commandos. Loath to credit the Viet Minh with fighting ability, French officials attributed the ferocious raids to former Japanese officers allegedly directing the bo doi, or Vietnamese fighters.
The key Expeditionary Corps maneuver would be the overland effort to link Haiphong to Hanoi along Colonial Route 5. That depended on forces at Haiphong, where Colonel Dèbes still commanded. Dèbes had armor, infantry, motorized troops, naval infantry, and artillery—in all a force of about the same size as that at Hanoi. A stream of fresh troops joined him. A few days before the fighting began came an artillery group, the III/14th Colonial Artillery, plus a battalion of the 13th Foreign Legion Demibrigade.
Another battalion of the 2nd Foreign Legion Infantry soon augmented them. That fresh battalion of Legion infantry formed the core of the Hanoi relief expedition. Some of its legionnaires were veterans of the French Indochina garrison famously overthrown by Japan in 1945 who had recently returned from internment in China. The battalion was reinforced by a tank platoon of the Colonial Infantry Mechanized Regiment and another from the Naval Armored Regiment, an engineer section, and one of artillery.
The combined task force set off. The fifty-five miles of road separating them from Hanoi undoubtedly seemed the longest in Vietnam at that time. Many bridges had been destroyed, and the engineers had to replace them with pontoons. At Hai Duong, the column encountered stiff resistance, beginning a four-day battle.
On Christmas Day the relief column broke through, and the force moved ahead. Seventeen miles farther on they encountered a last-ditch Viet Minh defense at the village of Ban Yen Nhan, but aerial bombardment helped break the defenses. On January 7, 1947, the Haiphong task force linked up with Colonel Langlais’ troops attacking out of Gia Lam. Finally supplies could reach Hanoi by land.
Fighting continued in Hanoi. On January 6, Vuong Thua Vu proposed to combine the Viet Minh troops in the city into a single regiment. Giap rewarded the defenders with the honorific title “Capital Regiment” six days later. On January 16, a section of riflemen in Dong Thanh district shot down one of the Spitfires, the first to be destroyed over Hanoi and the first lost to rifle fire.
To mark the one-month anniversary of the battle, Giap infiltrated an artillery unit across the Red River. Its members shelled the French holding a nearby college campus. Beginning on January 22, Colonel Raoul Herkel opened an offensive to clear the Vietnamese Quarter. Street fighting went on all morning. Tu Ve units counterattacked as the French closed in.
Bollardière’s paratroopers faced a tough fight after returning from their Nam Dinh foray. The Special Air Service demibrigade battled to eject Viet Minh from the Hotel d’Annam the next day, suffering two dead and three wounded. Serious fighting erupted as the French strove to secure the railroad line. North of the city, Herkel’s troops fought to control several smaller villages.
This sweep marked the last major participation by the Special Air Service paratroops in the battle for Hanoi. The paratroopers formed part of the Expeditionary Corps’ general reserve and were constantly being called upon to rush to hot spots and spearhead important maneuvers. By company, sometimes platoon, the paratroopers went all over Indochina.
Units from France were rapidly reinforcing the Expeditionary Corps—among them three fresh para battalions in early 1947— but that hardly reduced demands on the paratroopers. Bollardière’s strength gradually drained away, siphoned off to central and southern Vietnam, where other battles were raging or looming. Bollardière’s troops would return in March for a strong new effort to secure the city of Nam Dinh, but other forces had to take up the burden in Hanoi.
The leading edge of the new French power was the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Parachute Light Infantry under Major Albert FossiFrançois. Sent from Algeria, they reached Hanoi just as the city clearance went into high gear, and were committed after the second day of the offensive. The unit would be cantoned in buildings left from the colonial exposition France had held years before. They were followed a month later by the 1st Assault Parachute Battalion of Major Nasica, and a battalion of colonial infantry under Major de Vismes. Together the units constituted the Demibrigade de Marche Parachutiste. These troops also figured in the final days of the Hanoi battle.
By January 28, security had been restored to such an extent that Sainteny and Morlière felt safe visiting the Great Lake, formerly inside Viet Minh territory. Unknown to them, the next day General Giap slipped into Hanoi to confer with Vuong Thua Vu about withdrawing troops. By February, the People’s Army food supplies were critically low.
On February 7, the French admitted losing 1,855 dead or wounded. A week later Herkel captured the Dong Xuan market in a pitched battle, after two days of bombing. The French began a concentrated assault on the remaining defenses at dawn on February 14. Paratroops in red berets led the way, with tank support. Viet Minh fired machine guns from the rooftops. Defenders were down to a couple of sections of the 101st Regiment. By that night the Viet Minh had only eight bullets per rifle. Their food would run out in five days even if it was rationed. The Central Military Committee decided to withdraw the remaining defenders.
Evacuating civilians remained an issue. By mid-February, members of the foreign colony were exhausted, afraid, and beginning to starve. They appealed for several tons of maize and sesame, and asked for a one-day cease-fire to evacuate those who wished to leave. The Viet Minh agreed, setting February 18 as the day and using the opportunity for their own retreat.
Vietnamese sources later reported that the Viet Minh held a party to celebrate their defense of the city. While many partied, the Viet Minh regulars assaulted the French in the Hanoi market and nearby streets. Then they left the capital, infiltrating below the spans of the Paul Doumer Bridge and crossing the river using twenty boats that Chief of Staff Hoang Van Thai had gathered. As they pulled out, demolition squads blew up key installations.
Dawn caught Nguyen Van Noi’s troops on a sandbar in the middle of the Red River, where they had been posted to cover the withdrawal. They managed to elude the French anyway. The Viet Minh later said they successfully got all their wounded out of Hanoi, every fighter and every gun.
Afterward, the French began to cautiously push tentacles into the former enemy sectors, feeling their way into the Vietnamese Quarter. On February 24, the French announced that Hanoi had been completely secured. They claimed to have killed between eight and ten thousand Viet Minh in the campaign.
The Battle of Hanoi ended inconclusively. The French never got a last shot at their adversary and never neutralized the Hanoi underground, which gradually dug itself in more deeply, making for an uneasy occupation throughout the Franco-Vietnamese War. The Viet Minh regulars who had escaped continued to be known as the Capital Regiment, the 102nd Regiment of the 308th People’s Army Division. Going into action along the Chinese border a few years later, their battle cry would be “Let’s liberate Hanoi!”
The French troops, emerging from one of the few urban conflicts of the war, had conducted themselves well in breaking the Viet Minh siege but had been unable to impose decisive results. General Valluy wanted those results, and within half a year he would launch an offensive into Ho’s Viet Bac, only to fail again.
General Louis Morlière would be recalled to Paris at the end of January 1947 to explain the sequence of events that had led to the final breakdown. A few weeks later Admiral d’Argenlieu followed him home. Colonel Dèbes, the villain of the Haiphong incident, would be promoted to general and briefly replaced Morlière, but he died in an airplane crash at the end of March 1947.
Pierre Langlais and Vuong Thua Vu would face each other again at Dien Bien Phu, where Langlais led the French paratroop reserve and Vu the Viet Minh artillery. Tran Do, Vu’s political officer, would fight the Americans and South Vietnamese at Saigon during Tet 1968, another Vietnam city fight. It is worth noting that Politburo member Le Duan, at the party plenum that adopted final instructions for Tet, made several references to the Battle of Hanoi.
Admiral d’Argenlieu and General Valluy put their best face on the events of December 1946, denying any responsibility, but in later years the appearance of the admiral’s diaries, in addition to the declassification of the high commissioner’s and the Expeditionary Corps’ cables for the period, would graphically show how they had attempted to break the Viet Minh. Their collusion was widely suspected at the time, but today French historians widely agree on it. Still, avoiding the war would have required a different attitude in Paris toward Vietnamese independence, and that was probably beyond France at the time.
The French, then and later, demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for public relations, especially vis-à-vis the United States, framing these events as evidence of Vietnamese aggression rather than French imperialism, much as they would later portray the Indochina war as a Moscow-inspired Cold War offensive and not a product of French neocolonialism.
D’Argenlieu and Marius Moutet, along with an assortment of senior French officials, met with American diplomats ranging from the local consuls, James O’Sullivan and Charles Reed, to State Department Far East chief John Carter Vincent, to U.S. Ambassador Jefferson Caffery. They purveyed the message that the Battle of Hanoi was a Vietnamese atrocity.
Ho Chi Minh, who also had a talent for public relations, contrived to get several messages to the Americans giving his side of the story. A senior Vietnamese official managed to hand O’Sullivan a tall stack of documents that included the main texts of the negotiating record between France and the Democratic Republic through the summer and fall of 1946. The Hanoi consul forwarded those to Washington by diplomatic pouch, but the Truman administration never wavered. France was explicitly told that the United States had no objection to French actions in Indochina.
Then as later, some saw the realities more clearly. Among those was the senior American diplomat in Southeast Asia, Consul General Paul Josselyn, in Singapore. On January 7, 1947, Josselyn cabled Washington to urge that the United States intercede to mediate, acting to terminate the war. He declared, “Because of recent French actions believe permanent political solution can now be based only on independent Vietnam (alternative is gigantic armed colonial camp), but confident still possible to secure full protection French property, interests, and culture.” The consul asserted that such action would both save countless lives and protect the position of the United States and other democracies in Southeast Asia, remarking that the Vietnamese record was no worse than the French. He shared doubt about the French ability to create an effective puppet government in their Vietnam. That was prescient: The political weakness in the French position throughout the war that ended at Dien Bien Phu stemmed precisely from their inability to create a legitimate Vietnamese government. That, in turn, stemmed directly from their refusal to accord full independence to Vietnam.
Josselyn wrote, too, in a sharp analysis, that “Even if French military campaigns are successful, hatreds engendered will defeat French civil and economic objectives and threaten all western interests.” Had the war in Vietnam been prevented at the start, much that happened later—to the French, the Vietnamese, and to Americans—would have been avoided. The Battle of Hanoi marked the beginning of an almost endless tragedy.
Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.