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

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Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms by Richard E. Baker

44444444444444444444444Richard E. Baker served in the U. S. Army with the 4th Infantry Band. He did not spend his time in Vietnam marching on parade grounds playing his horn, though. He was in the field, setting up ambushes and the like. He has suffered a life-long battle with PTSD.

Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms (CreateSpace, 276 pp., $11, paper)  is part of Baker’s French Foreign Legion in Vietnam historical fiction series. Baker has done thorough and painstaking research for his recounting of the “retreat from Cao Bang [which], marks one of the largest fiascos in military history,” as he puts it.

Both the French and the Viet Minh are presented precisely and accurately in a narrative populated with memorable characters of many nationalities and disparate personalities. Baker is first a fine storyteller, and then a historian. But he never pushes his research down the throats of his readers. Still, you will know a lot more about the French War in Indochina after you have read this book.

I especially enjoyed the characters that Baker brought alive and the context in which they lived and fought. Baker’s great gift of knowing what to include in a list benefits the reader again and again in a book that is populated with lists along with unforgettable characters, both European and Asian. Even Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander, a minor character in this book, comes alive in his few scenes. Baker has Giap say, “I’m not concerned about winning battles, just in winning the war.”

I am compelled to quote part of one of Bake

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r’s fine lists, just to show how he brings French Indochina in the 1950s alive.

“Tables of meat stood under cover: pig, dog, and cow, heads stripped of skin, buckets of entrails, tails undressed of hide, bowls of eyeballs staring blankly as if they could still see, thick tongues, brains piled like wet cauliflower, hooves, penises, legs crisscrossed across the wooden tables, and piano keys of ribs waiting for the delicate fingers of some mad and carnivorous musician.”

Baker shows the Legionaires “in search of small pleasures at cheap prices.” I could easily identify with them. Much is made of the pleasure that the soldiers took in smoking cheap cigarettes. I loved the comment from one of the villains: “With a single idea, much can be accomplished.”  This accomplishment is fired by cigarettes.

My favorite line comes near the end: “Many top generals were poor leaders; that is how they earned promotions and became top generals.” That was my impression from my one meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland.  All he wanted to talk about with me was that I needed a haircut. He had no interest in my theories about why he was losing the war.

This is a brilliant and enjoyable novel of the French debacle in Indochina, and it is prophetic of how the American War would go. We, too, were ignorant of history and scorned and dismissed both the French effort and the Viet Minh who beat them. America is always convinced of our exceptionalism. We turned out to be more like the French than we would admit.

I highly recommend this novel and all novels by Richard Baker. He is creating one of the great bodies of work about war in Vietnam—an entire shelf of books worth reading.

—David Willson