Monday, 21 March 2016

Marine Commando Francois - French Indochina "The Dirty War" - part 1

Every wargamer and modeller out there will have their guilty pleasure. The one period or genre that, for God only knows what reason, really ticks their boxes. For me, that's the French Indochina War which immediately followed world war 2 and the massive famine that killed millions in Vietnam (or Indochina as it was called back then).

Why would I be interested in this I hear you ask? there are no American Hueys thwopping over the jungle, no ARVN busy running away and no M60's swathing down stretches of virgin rainforest... and of course hitting no Victor Charlie at all!

Well, for me, it makes for a far more interesting conflict. France was just in the process of picking itself up and dusting itself off after 6 years of occupation and collaboration with the Nazi regime (Vichy France before anybody jumps on me over the collaboration label) and had to start the Dirty War using handouts from anybody who would give them. Whilst America was at the peak of its cold war power in their war, France was probably at lowest ebb, on top of which, the French public quite explicitly didn't want the war and so the French government couldn't, by law, send any of its Metropolitan forces out to fight. Instead they had to rely on colonial forces and the inestimable Foreign Legion. They had half of the US manpower for their war and fought over 4 times the surface area and were able to claim MUCH bigger victories but just like America... they still lost the war.... although France was able to extricate themselves from Indochina with far higher prestige after the Geneva Peace Accords than the Americans managed with their mad scramble from Saigon's roof tops and the complete loss of the country to Communism. That said however, both western powers were comprehensively defeated, and the victor was in no uncertain terms... Communism.

There is everything in this war, the first use of helicopters in an armed conflict (at the same time as in Korea actually), armoured trains, cavalry, the Foreign Legion, Dinassaut (more on them later) and such a variety of vehicles that it would make your head spin. A lot of the gimmicks from the American War are still there, ambushes, booby traps and tunnel complexes and of course there is the fact that whilst America marginalised the Vietnamese in their own country and resisted including them in their own orders of battle whilst they were fighting, the French had an active policy of recruitment into existing formations in a process called 'Jaunissement' (Yellowing) whereby entire companies of indigenous Vietnamese would be recruited into CEFEO to help the Colonial masters fight off the nasty communists who were running the Viet Minh.

A French F8F Bearcat bombing Viet positions in the Battle of the Day River

France didnt come out of this war with much to write home about suffering a series of crushing blows from an ostensibly peasant army with rifles, the Viet Minh continually surprised the French high command and following the death of de Lattre from cancer there wasn't another commander in chief with the ability, resources or governmental support to take the fight to the Viets any longer.

One area that has success! written all over it is the French formation of Naval Assault Divisions, abbreviated to Dinassaut's. These small fleets of inland water navies would dominate the Mekong and Red, Black and Clear river ways with their manoeuvrability and firepower for the duration of the war. These organisations have been duplicated by every nation that has had inland water warfare since. The operational practises were supreme. The infantry elements of the Dinassauts would be provided by different organisations at different times on an ad hoc basis but one group that were routinely attached to the Dinassaut's were the French Marine Commandos of which there were six. Commando Francois, Ponchardier, Treppel, Montfort, Jaubert and Hubert de Penfentayo all named after marine officers who had been killed in action late in world war 2 or in the Indochina conflict.

Commando Francois would be decimated at the Battle of Ninh Binh in 1951 and would be subsequently disbanded in 1953.

Commando Francois was dispatched to Indochina in 1947 soon after hostilities broke out and Leclerc and Gracey had managed to regain control, but they were diverted to Madagascar on the way to suppress another colonial rebellion. In 5 months of operations they spent over 100 days in the bush covering more than 2500km on foot.

Finally in November of 1947 Commando Francois arrived in Ha Long bay in Tonkin (this was the name for the northern of the 5 subdivisions of French Indochina) which would see their first operational practises in a war zone.

The French naval base of An-Thoi in the bay of Ha Long
An-Thoi's commercial waterfront...

Following a brief stay in Tonkin they were sent south to Cochin China (the southernmost subdivision of French Indochina) fighting around the maritime sectors of Cambodia and up to the coast of Annam (the Eastern central subdivision of French Indochina) until 1949.

Embarked on an LCT of Dinassaut 3 of which C. Francois was the infantry element for a time.

A Post Kilometrique, A small tower spaced every kilometer along the limit of the Tonkin Delta in a defensive line termed the De Lattre line. This one is at the very end near the naval base of An Thoi
Commando Francois assisting an M29 C Crabe platoon

Following the deployment across Annam's coast, Commando Francois again headed south to operate past Cochin China to operate in the Gulf of Siam on Thailands eastern seaboard and once again into Cochin China where they operated intensively in the Mekong Delta.

Commando Bernard Papinaud armed with a German MP-40 Schmeisser

A mixed group of Commandos returning from a patrol

Patrolling the paddy fields along the coast of Cochin China

Finally in 1950 Commando Francois was once again directed back to Tonkin where there operations continued, including an attack on the island of Cat Ba in the bay of Ha Long suspected of holding a Viet Minh body of troops.

Sweep and Search on Cat Ba

Viet Minh prisoners captured on Cat Ba

A Viet Minh arms cache recovered from Cat Ba

On the morning of May 28th 1951, Commando Francois took up positions in an abandoned catholic church on the riverfront of the city of Ninh Binh.

The church of Ninh Binh before the battle.

This unfortunate placement coincided with the launch, that night, of Viet Minh General Vo Nguyen Giap's general assault of the Red River Delta with 3 entire Viet Minh divisions being deployed including the elite 308th Iron Division, which landed smack in the lap of Commando Francois.

This would see some of Frances greatest victories of the war but not before General De Lattres son, Bernard, had been killed at Ninh Binh rock, a craggy military outpost which Bernard layed down his life to defend but also the practical elimination of Commando Francois.

...and this is what happened, at least according to the words of one of the survivors, Pierre Quintal (this is only an approximate translation from the French as my French isnt that good... but it will have to do!).

"The Church of Ninh Binh, which serves as the shelter for Commando Francois, is only smoke and noise. Its roof has collapsed under the well targeted Viet mortars. Shells explode in the nave.

General Giap's Bo-Doi (thats the Viet Minh regular infantry) sweeps limestone across the smoke filled church as the mortars and recoilless rifles increase their rates of fire. Their machine guns start to fire as well, soon accompanied by small arms. Second-Maitre Seveno stops firing and gets his mortar crew under cover in the church.

Large pieces of roofing continue to fall making the position untenable. Commandant L.V. Labbens decides on an assault to attempt a break out in order to reach friendly positions in Ninh Binh. The men begin to leave immediately but are quickly taken under fire by an FM 24/29 (A French equivalent of the Bren Gun, widespread amongst Viet Minh troops) which prevents any further movement. The FM is close to the church, positioned at the foot of the Christ statue. Under a blanket of fire, Second-Maitre Henry and Quartermaster Czarnechi, also armed with an FM, barrel down the stairs and pass through the blasts. Quartermaster 2 Malecot immediately falls on the square whilst Pihan maintains a fierce fire to support Czarnechi who, firing his FM from the hip, neutralises the Viets in the area. The troops leaving the church are not deterred by enemy fire and belt along in an effort to get out of the Viet trap!

The firepower of the Viet Minh is such that the Pasha (Cmd L.V. Labbens) believes it is not practical for the commando to pass the Viet lines and orders the dissolution of the commando into small groups under orders to break and run.

Pihan goes first, followed by Seven, Muller, Briot and Cosso. They head towards one of the Pagodas that is silhouetted against the light of the rising sun.

The Viets think that the Commando's are still in the Church and concentrate all their fire on the building. Pihan's small team head towards a boathouse with a camouflaged dory (a traditional fishing boat) when a volley of mortar rounds and grenades lands amongst them. The Viets are just behind the 3 meter high embankment causing the commando's to dive into the mud. Cosso, laying against Pihan becomes inert as he turns to Seven grinning and then dies. Pihan is shocked as he stands and also sees the dead body of Briot laying in the mud.

A section of the Viet Minh Bo-Doi, perceiving darkness within the Church charge towards it yelling and trampling the body of Briot, crushing his extensively bleeding body into the mud. As they run past, Pihan gathers the last of his strength, gets up and runs towards the boathouse. He stumbles into another body in the process of standing up. Muller! Together they travel the next 20m together. Gunfire! Pihan is injured in his right side, Muller is killed instantly. Pihan swings two bursts of fire at the place the shots came from, when a group of Viets, screaming, rush to the attack. Pihan falls down and plays dead next to Muller and the Viets trample them both in their rush for the Church. He sees Czarnechi and two others led away as prisoners by the swarming Bo-Doi, and from his hideout he also sees that it is German Foreign Legion deserters that are manning the Viet mortars.

A group of Viets stop a short distance from him, chatting and smoking. They throw a grenade at him, again wounding him, this time in his right hip. He waits, covered in leeches. Injured he feels he cannot go on but the idea of getting into one of the Dories and getting away keeps him going. The Viets, enraged at the stout resistance are conducting a search for escaping commandos.

Pihan plunges into the cool water of the Day river and makes it to the Boathouse with some difficulty. He comes out of the water, takes a quick inventory of available equipment and half rising hears a noise in the darkness. Ready to open fire he uncovers three commandos, Mahe, Cazeau and Masseboeuf. With explosions whistling in their ears Pihan tells his comrades to go and to come back with reinforcements. They leave the crater against the wall.

Pihan gets up and tries to run behind his buddies. Shots, a voice is heard. Is that his friend Caroff that orders the cease fire. He has made it. He is home free!

The Viets, enraged by the resistance of this handful of men will shoot, in defiance of the rules of war, seventeen prisoners of war at the scene of the battle. A further nine men will die in captivity. Only twenty four men survived the battle and only a final five will be freed from captivity"

Inside the Church after the battle

Reinforcements approach some of the peripheral buildings of the Church grounds

One of the reinforcements looking across the lake to the Church the day after the battle showing the Christ statue just outside where the Viet Minh FM was situated

At the start of the day, Commando Francois had a full complement of 78 combat effective Europeans and 2 Vietnamese suppletifs, with an average age of 20. By the start of the next day only 24 would be left. Of the total casualties suffered by all Commando's throughout the 8 years of war over half of the casualties were suffered by Commando Francois at this battle. The casualty rate was so high for this small group that in 1953 the decision was made to disband the Commando and reallocate the remaining men to other commandos.

They played an absolutely crucial part in the victories of 1951 however. Thanks to their courage and practically holding up the entire 308th Iron Division for a day, General De Lattre was able to organise a rapid response to this massive surprise attack effectively catching the Viet Minh in the open ground of the delta en masse. Giap had to admit that he did not achieve the surprise that his plans needed and this is almost entirely due to the sacrifice of Commando Francois, when all other posts in their vicinity fell quickly and quietly!

It would be safe to say that these guys definitely carried no white flag!

Il Mort Pour La France!

What the church of Ninh Binh looks like today.

Collecting the bodies of the Commandos the day after the battle
The funeral service for the fallen of Ninh Binh

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