French Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent by Martin Windrow

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In 1954, Penn State ROTC instructors taught me that France had been wrong to attempt to maintain its colonies in Indochina following World War II.  Thereafter, the writings of Bernard Fall and Jean Larteguy influenced my thinking about the warfare between the French Army and the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Their books made me sympathetic toward the French, while at the same time I admired the determination of the Vietnamese.

Then I took part in the American war in Vietnam and stopped caring about what had happened to the French because we had our own problems in Southeast Asia.

Now, Martin Windrow has revitalized my thinking on the topic with French Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent: North Vietnam, 1948-52 (Osprey, 80 pp. $20, paper; $16, e book). Windrow is an authority on the French Foreign Legion and has written other books on Indochina. This slim volume is packed with facts. Oddly, though, the bibliography does not include any books by Fall or Lartéguy.

In France, Windrow says, a legal bar prevented most conscripts from being deployed to the colonies. Therefore, volunteers from “some 40 nationalities bore the main burden of the war.” In Indochina, the Legion was “about 50 percent German—men with no skills to sell except military experience from World War II.”

He characterizes the Viet Minh as “a general revolutionary organization of the civilian population.” Motivated toward patriotism by communist indoctrination, “mostly illiterate 18-20-year-olds” who lived “among the rice paddies” served with the Viet Minh, as Windrow puts it.

In other words, a Legionnaire felt allegiance toward his fellow soldiers, and a Viet Minh fought for his nation’s independence.

Windrow also compares French and Viet Minh leadership, communications, training and morale, logistics, armament, and tactics. The two armies slogged through jungles and rice paddies trying to outwit each other, much like the U.S. Army’s search-and-destroy strategy against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, but without helicopter support and significant airborne firepower.

The French were “hamstrung from the outset by a failure either to recognize the type of enemy they faced or to formulate a coherent plan for defeating them,” Windrow says. With most fighting occurring in remote areas, expediency prevailed. Legionnaires with serious head or gut wounds routinely received a “merciful overdose of morphine.” The Viet Minh leaders ruthlessly “regarded the individual as cannon fodder.” The French aimed to win with firepower while the Viet Minh relied on manpower.

In the book Windrow highlights three battles fought in Tonkin, the far northeast region of Vietnam: Phu Tong Hoa (July 25, 1948), Dong Khe (September 16-18, 1950), and Na San (November 23-December 2, 1952).

Although the Viet Minh breached the Legion defenses at Phu Tong Hoa, the French retained control of their base. The following month they abandoned the site, which ceded almost the entire northeastern part of Vietnam to the Viet Minh.

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French survivors of the 1948 Battle of Phu Tong Hog  (photo: Musée de la Légion)

At Dong Khe, the Viet Minh fielded 10,000 men against 267 Legionnaires and captured the Citadel. Viet Minh casualties numbered perhaps 2,000 with 500 killed, Windrow says. Twenty Legionnaires escaped, but all the others were killed or taken prisoner. After the French tried but failed to recapture Dong Khe, they suffered repeated defeats and retreated from the area. Of 7,409 Legionnaires, 5,987 were killed or went missing, Windrow says.

The Viet Minh attack on Na San resulted from a haphazard decision by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and failed because of logistical mistakes. The well-fortified French positions and the length of the encounter demanded more supplies than Giap had anticipated. The loss taught him lessons that paid dividends at the pivotal May 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

It appears that Windrow selected these battles to illustrate how Giap learned strategy on the job. Giap’s basic maneuver of employing massive numbers of men required greater logistical support—particularly with artillery and ammunition—than he had anticipated before Na San.

Based on this book, one might wonder how much Giap’s realization about logistics affected the decision to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail to supply North Vietnamese soldiers in South Vietnam.

Following Osprey’s classic design, Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent contains excellent artwork, photographs, and maps. Illustrator John Shumate rendered his vivid work in Adobe Photoshop using a Cintiq monitor.

—Henry Zeybel