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French riverine forces


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  • The Boats - French Riverine Craft 
  • Many parts of Indochina are criss-crossed with rivers, making land movement difficult and river boats become an attractive alternative. The French were well aware of this, and from virtually the start of the campaign against the Viet Minh they organised riverine units of ex-US landing craft (which, due to their draught, were ideal for such shallow waterways) and locally produced small-craft into combat and transport units with mixed naval and army personnel. The initial, somewhat ad-hoc units evolved into the "Divisions navales d'assaut" - usually abbreviated to "Dinassaut". A forgotten part of a forgotten war, these river forces developed workable battle-tactics and equipment for the war in the deltas, and this is a small attempt to revive interest in them.

    Origin of the Species

    Vietnam (that is, Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina) was a largely roadless area with multiple rivers presenting difficulties to the movement of conventional forces. In Tonkin the Red River and its delta provide a natural highway, and the Mekong gives a similar effect in Cochinchina, but Annam has many shallow, narrow waterways restricting the size of river vessels.

    To get over these difficulties, one approach was to use airborne troop deployment, and the French invested a considerable portion of their limited resources into building up paratroops in Indochina. But they could never manage to lift more than two battalions at any point - airborne operations were obviously not the real answer to the French problems here. A more conventional approach was required.

    Thus "brown water" or riverine units were developed by the French Army and Navy for a variety of purposes - transport, supply, escort and combat - using different types of vessel and organisation. Apart from the Navy, three branches of the Army became involved in river operations: the Transportation Corps, Engineer Corps and Armoured Corps.

    The Transportation Corps had the longest history of dealing with river transport in Indochina, and soon set about organising a river supply system as the newly-returned French forces spread over the deltas in 1946. However, due to a lack of suitable equipment this supply system took some time to develop. Some 50 DUKW amphibious trucks were acquired from the US Army in the Philippines in 1948, but proved to be of little use. The Army eventually received numbers of LCMs in 1951, which allowed the formation of river transport platoons (each of 8 LCMs, 1 officer and 80 men) - there were eventually three in Tonkin, one in Hue (serving Annam), three in Saigon (for Cochinchina) and another in Phnom Penh (Cambodia). These units were used for routine transport and supply of men and materials in the main, but were occasionally attached to combat units as tactical transports.

    The Engineers had two types of riverine unit - the first were river ferry companies using pontoon barges (and occasionally LSTs) for river crossings. There were also specialist units with armoured boats carrying heavy engineering equipment for the support of riverine combat operations. In addition, the engineers were responsible for building and maintaining river harbours and other facilities.

    The Army branch with the least experience/tradition of brown-water warfare was the Armoured Corps - but these proved to be very adaptable to the new environment. The first real example of this was with reconnaissance units deployed in the deltas, some of which swapped their armoured cars and other vehicles for STCAN/FOM boats to carry out patrols, liaison, etc. These Army patrol boats operated independently, but could be attached to other units such as Dinassauts or river convoys. The Armoured troops also developed the use of amphibious tracked vehicles such as the Crab (M29 "Weasel"), LVT (sometimes equipped with 40mm Bofors guns) and LVT(A) (with 75mm howitzer). These were used to great effect in the delta areas. In addition, the Armoured troops provided crews for the turrets mounted on Navy LCM monitors.

    The French Navy had a strong presence in Indochina before WW2, and it was involved in combat right from the start of the reoccupation in 1945. When General Leclerc arrived with the vanguard of the CEFEO, this comprised the 5e RIC (including the SAS Battalion of CC Ponchardier), a "March Group" (provisional formation) of the 2e DB (2nd Armoured Division) under Lt-Col. Massu, elements of the 9e DIC and a company of Naval Infantry under LV Merlet. This last was the precursor to the "Brigade Marine d'Extrême-Orient" (BMEO - Far Eastern Naval Brigade) under CV Kilian. This force landed at Saigon and quickly re-established French control of the city.

    There were riots and insurrections breaking out across Cochinchina, and Gen. Gracey (the C-in-C of the British forces in South Vietnam) was forced to declare martial law. His orders were to supervise the Japanese surrender, and not get involved with police actions - that was the responsibility of Leclerc and his newly arrived French troops. On 12th October 1945, the French and British launched a joint campaign to pacify the area around Saigon. Leclerc, with only 4500 troops at his disposal, decided to seize the nearest city - My Tho (60km south of Saigon). For this operation he allocated an armoured group (Groupement Massu) which set out by road on the 15th October. However, they proceeded slowly as the road was cut in places, with bridges blown and obstacles blocking the way. With the Army becoming bogged down, it was time for the Navy to have a go.

    The Ponchardier Commando lands in My ThoCompagnie Merlet and the SAS Battalion were embarked on an LCI provided by the Royal Navy, and the sloop Annamite. They sailed up the Mekong without incident and were landed close to My Tho - which they took by surprise on the 25th October. Once Groupement Massu arrived in the city, the Naval units re-embarked onto the Annamite on the 29th and captured Vinh Long in similar fashion, going on to Can Tho on the following day (which also fell to the Naval Infantry). In the face of such success (compared to the difficulties encountered by the Army) General Leclerc charged CF Jaubert with the task of forming a riverine flotilla of transport and landing craft from the BMEO and locally available resources.

    The First Riverine Flotillas

    Jaubert rapidly formed two small flotillas at Can Tho and My Tho from barges and launches which had been hurriedly armed and armoured, together with two old ex-Japanese motorised junks (renamed Arcachonnaise and Lorientaise). These were reinforced in December by the purchase of some landing craft from the British at Singapore (LCAs, LCMs and LCVPs). At the same time a base with workshops was set up at Phu My (a suburb of Saigon), with smaller facilities built at Can Tho and My Tho in January 1946. Phu My became the headquarters of the "Flottille Fluviale d'Indochine" (Indochina River Flotilla).

    As the CEFEO prepared for the return to Tonkin, the Flotilla was reorganised into the "Flottilles Fluviales de Fusiliers-Marins" (FFFM - Naval Infantry River Flotillas) on the 15th February 1946. The 1er FFFM was designated for service in the north, and was commanded by CC Hébert. It included most of the landing craft, and had the Naval Company under LV Merlet attached (this was now known as "Compagnie Jaubert", as CF Jaubert had been mortally wounded in the taking of Tan Uyen on 25th January 1946). The remaining landing craft, together with the armed junks and barges, formed the 2e FFFM under CF Duchaine, which was to remain in Cochinchina.

    The 1er FFFM went into action directly after their arrival in Haiphong on the 6th March, taking part in a number of actions in the coastal zone at Cam Pha, Port Wallut, Tien Yen, Dam Ha, and then from 19th to 30th November in the fighting at Haiphong.

    The BMEO was dissolved on 1st January 1947, and the two flotillas were reorganised into the "Force Amphibie de la Marine en Indochine" (FAMIC - Navy Amphibious Force in Indochina). This was split into two groups, namely:

    1. Northern group (Force Amphibie du Nord - FAN): 
      • 1re Flottille Amphibie (1st Amphibious Flotilla) with: 
        • 1st Squadron 
        • 3rd Squadron (under LV François, who was killed 3rd January, then LV Garnier) 
      • Compagnie Jaubert 
      • Base at Haiphong 
      • Various river and coastal posts 
    2. Southern group (Force Amphibie du Sud - FAS): 
      • 2e Flottille Amphibie 
        • 2nd Squadron (CC Vedel) 
        • 4th Squadron (CC Degoy) 
      • 2 platoons of Naval Infantry 
      • Base at Phu My 
      • Various river and coastal posts 
    These carried out various operations during their brief existences.

    Operations by FAN:

    • "Dédale" (reinforcement of Nam Dinh), 6-8th January 
    • "Louis" (clearing of Nui Deo), 17th February 
    • The occupation of Quang Yen, 25th February 
    • The occupation of Appowan Island, 9th March 
    • "Escale II" (relief of Nam Dinh), 3-15th March 
    • "Catherine" (capture of Dong Trieu), 18th March 
    • "Georges" (occupation of Kien An and Do Son), 12-17th May
    Operations by FAS:
    • "André" and "François" (relief of Tourane [Da Nang], Hué and Quang Tri), 26th December 1946 to 18th February 1947 
    • Relief of Faifo (Hoi An), 6-16th March 
    • Control of the Mekong Delta re-established during April
    During the spring of 1947, a more formal division between Army and Navy riverine/amphibious units was made. The Naval units became "Groupes de combat amphibies" in mid-June, then in August they were reorganised into "Divisions Navales d'Assaut", or Dinassauts.

    Typical Organisation and Equipment of a Dinassaut, 1947-49

    • Command and support: 1 LCI (LSIL from 1951) 
    • Transport: 1 LCT (Later withdrawn and attached on an "as-needed" basis) 
    • Transport and support: 2 LCMs
    • Patrol and support: 4 LCVPs (2 units of 2 each: sometimes replaced by LCAs early on), later also used for mine sweeping 
    • 1 patrol/liaison boat (LCVP or LCA)
    Other boats (such as LSSL, aircraft tenders, etc.), and Naval Commandos or Army troops were added for specific tasks.

    The Units

    There were ten Dinassauts formed during the war (odd numbers based in Tonkin, evens in Cochinchina - though this was later abandoned), and apart from No. 5 they all continued until the French withdrawal (at which point most of the material was passed onto the new ARVN forces). The units were:

    Dinassaut 1

    Formed in Tonkin, August 1947. Commanded by CC Landrot, then CC de Brossard from July 1950. Initially based in Haiphong, then moved in August 1949 to Sept Pagodes. 


    • "Léa" and "Ceinture", Oct. -Nov. 1947 (in the Viet Bac - the VM stronghold in Tonkin) 
    • "Pégase", Dec. '48 - Jan. '49 (Phu Ly region) 
    • "Bastille", Jul. - Aug. '49 (Bac Ninh - Phu Lang Thuong sector) 
    • "Grégoire", Sep. '50 (Bamboo Canal) 
    • "Pataugas", Mar. '51 (Song Thai Binh) 
    • Battle of Dong Trieu, Apr. '51 
    • "Tango", May '52 (Upper Song Thai Binh) 
    • "Nice", Feb. '53 (Canal des Rapides) 
    • "Ventoux", Nov. '53 (Sept Pagodes area)
    Returned to Haiphong May '54, and was disbanded on 11th August '54.


    The infantry attachment varied through the existence of Dinassaut 1. "Compagnie Jaubert" was attached during the autumn campaigns of 1947, followed by a company of BM/7e RTM, then a native auxiliary unit with the radio call-sign "Matou", and finally Commando 64.

    Dinassaut 2

    Formed in Cochinchina, August '47, under CC Léost, and termed an "intervention" unit, this served alternatively on the Mekong or Saigon Rivers.


    • "Iota", Jan. '48 (Phuoc An region) 
    • "Jonquille", Jun. '49 (Plain of Reeds) 
    • "Gamma", Sep. '50 (Mocay region) 
    • "Tourbillon V", Aug. '51 (Canal Commercial) 
    • "Jupiter", Sep. '52 (Go Quao region) 
    • "Jura", Feb. '53 (Baria sector)
    On 1st Jan. 1954, the unit comprised 1 LSIL, 2 LCMs and 2 EAs.

    The infantry attachment varied, including:

    • a platoon of the RMSEO 
    • a company of BM/4e RTM 
    • a company of 1/43e RIC 
    • the Commando Marine "Francois", attached for several weeks in 1949

    Dinassaut 3

    Formed in Tonkin, August 1947, under LV Garnier and then CC Acloque. Based at Nam Dinh.


    • "Léa", Oct. '47 
    • "Ondine", Nov. '48 (Vietri region) 
    • "Anthracite", Oct. '49 (Phat Diem region) 
    • "Tonneau", Feb. '50 (Thai Binh sector) 
    • The Battle of Day, 29th May to 3rd June '51 (Then relieved by an ephemeral group known as "Dinassaut A", under LV Schloesing, consisting of LSSL 6, with LCMs 30, 32, 34 and 59)
    • "Mercure", Apr.-May '52 (Thai Binh) 
    • "Tarentaise" (Bui Chu), "Brochet" (Canal des Bambous), "Gerfaut" (Bui Chu) and "Mouette" (Phu No Quan), Aug. - Nov. '53
    Composition: This unit was transferred to the Vietnamese Navy on 11th March 1954, becoming "Dinassaut 22". In June it took part in Operation "Auvergne" (withdrawal from the Phat Diem, Nam Dinh and Bui Chu sectors), and left North Vietnam on 11th August 1954 for relocation in the Tourane (Da Nang) area.

    The infantry attachment was first Commando "Sieffer", then Commando 63.

    Dinassaut 4

    Formed as an "intervention" unit in Cochinchina, August 1947. Initially under the command of CC Degoy, then CC Rossignol, it was based alternatively on the Mekong or Saigon Rivers.


    • "Véga", Feb. '48 (Plain of Reeds) 
    • "Huron", Jun. '48 (Phuoc An region) 
    • "Ramadan", Jul. '50 (Mocay) 
    • "Jeanne d'Arc", May '51 (Badong) 
    • Moved to Tonkin at the end of Dec. '51, for operations on the Black River. After the evacuation of Hoa Binh in Feb. '52 relieved Dinassaut 12 at Ninh Giang. 
    • "Ouragan", Mar. '52 (Thai Binh) 
    • "Delta" (Haiphong), "Bordeaux" (Haiphong), "Claude" (Tien Lang) and "Brochet" (Bamboo Canal), Jul. - Oct. '53 
    • "Auvergne", Jun. '54
    Stationed at Haiphong on 8th August 1954.

    In July 1952 the unit was composed of 1 LCI, 2 LCM monitors, 2 LCMs, 2 EAs, 1 CLA.

    Infantry attachment varied:

    - In Cochinchina it was one company of BM/1er RTM, then 1 coy. of the BM/4e RTM, and finally one coy. from BM/6e RTA.

    - In Tonkin the attachment was a company of native auxiliaries (CLA 4)

    Dinassaut 5

    Formed in Tonkin, August 1947, under first LV Nivet-Doumer, then CC Mangin d'Ouince, this unit served for only a brief period. Based at Hanoi, and including the requisitioned (civilian) LCT San Juan, this temporary group included 2 LCTS, 2 LCMs and 2 LCAs.

    Dinassaut 5 was involved in "Léa" (Oct. '47) and then "Ceinture" (being active in the occupations of Phu Lang Thuong, Bo Ha and Seven Pagodas) during Nov. '47. The unit was then disbanded.

    Dinassaut 6

    This unit was formed in August 1947 in Cochinchina, under the command of CC Buot de l'Epine. From its base at Vinh Long, this Dinassaut was involved in the following operations:
    • "Sainte-Barbe" (Thu Dau Mot), Nov. - Dec. '50 
    • "Marécage" (Song Long Tranh), Mar. '51 
    • "Croisade" (Badong), Sep. '51 
    • "Etrave" (My Duc Tay), Apr. '52 
    • "Croisiere II" (Eastern Vaico River), Nov. '52 
    • "Ardeche" (Hoa Thuan), Feb. '53
    Transferred to the Vietnamese Navy on 11th June 1953, becoming part of the Forces Fluviales de Vinh Long (Vinh Long Riverine Force).

    On the 1st Jan. 1954, the unit had 1 command LCM, 4 LCMs and 4 LCVPs.

    The infantry attachment included a company of the GRC, and the "de Montfort" Marine Commando (during the last four months of 1947).

    Dinassaut 8

    Formed Jan. 1948 in Cochinchina under CF Ponchardier, and based at Long Xuyen. Known as the "Dinassaut rapide", it was built around the aircraft-tender Cdt. Robert-Giraud (ex-Kriegsmarine Immelmann which could carry 1 Sea Otter or Goose seaplane and 4 LCVPs or 2 LCVPs and 2 STCAN/FOM boats), the group made various raids on the coast around the Gulf of Siam and strikes into the Plain of Reeds and western Vaïco River during early 1948. They carried into action a section of sailors from the Escort Carrier Dixmude (ex-HMS Biter), the 5e Compagnie of 2e BCCP and a platoon of Crabes from the 1st Squadron of the 1er REC.

    Disbanded on the 12th March 1948, the unit was reformed on the 1st August under CC Pasquier de Franclieu as a specialist unit to operate in the large rice-growing area of the Transbassac (i.e. around the Bassac River) which was unnavigable for larger craft. At this point the unit consisted of two armoured barges (Lave and Dévastation), two LCMs and four LCVPs, based at Cantho. Their primary duty was convoy escort, and so the unit was termed the "Dinassaut d'escorte". The barges were used as the large number of low bridges in the area were impassable to LCIs.


    • "Bougie" (Cau Ke), Dec. '49 
    • "Sarcelle" (Phu Nuu Canal), Mar. '50 
    • "Pamplemousse" (Nha Man), Mar. '51 
    • "Helice" (Nicolai Canal), Jan. '52 
    • "Planète" (Thot Not Canal), Aug. '52 
    • "Anjou" (Can Tho), Jan. '53
    Transferred to the Vietnamese Navy on the 10th April 1953, the unit was absorbed into the Forces Fluviales de Cantho (Cantho Riverine Forces). On 1st Jan. 1954 it comprised 1 command LCM, 4 LCMs and 2 LCVPs.

    Dinassaut 10

    Formed in Cochinchine in March 1951, under CC Gasnier-Duparc, and termed an "intervention" unit, this was based alternatively on the Mekong and Saigon Rivers.


    • "Aquarium" (Hiep Ho), May '51 
    • "Grapefruits" (Sadec), Jul. '51 
    • "Barnabé" (Tay Ninh) and "Tourbillon VII" (Tong Doc Loc Canal), Jun. '52 
    • "Grenache" (Badong), Aug. '52 
    • "Khenifra" (Plain of Reeds), Apr. '53
    On 1st Jan. 1954 consisted of 1 LSIL, 2 LCMs and 2 LCVPs.

    Dinassaut 12

    Formed in Tonkin, Jan. '51, under CC de Kersauzon. Based first at Qui Cao, then Ninh Giang, its' mission was to patrol the Bamboo Canal (the main link between the Red River and Song Thai Binh). Relieved by Dinassaut 4 in March '52, then based partly in Hanoi, partly in Son Tay.


    • "Citron" (Bamboo Canal), Sep. '51 
    • "Antilope" (Hung Yen), Jun. '52 
    • "Lorraine" (Phu To - Phu Bien region), Nov. '52 
    • "Artois" (Thai Binh), Jan. '53 
    • "Brochet" and "Mouette", Sep.-Nov. '53
    Stationed at Haiphong on 21st September 1954.

    In July 1952 the unit consisted of 1 LCI, 2 LCM monitors, 2 LCMs, 2 EAs, 1 CLA.

    CLA: Commando 61

    Dinassaut Haiphong

    Formed on the 1st February 1953 by redesignation of the Haiphong Maritime Patrol ("Patmar"), and transformed into a Dinassaut on 25th May 1953. Under LV Bardet, the unit consisted of an LSIL, 5 LCMs and 3 LCVPs. It took part in all operations in the Haiphong area during 1953 and 1954, notably "Tarentaise", "Delta", "Echo" and "Claude" in Aug.-Sep. '53. Taking the name of Dinassaut 3 in July 1954 and leaving North Vietnam for relocation to Tourane on 11th August, the unit was dissolved on 1st June 1955.

    On 1st Jan. 1954, consisted of 1 LSIL, 1 LCM monitors, 3 LCMs, 3 EAs, and 1 platoon of STCAN/FOM boats.

    CLA: Commando 65


    • French Naval Ranks: 
      • LV = Lieutenant de Vaisseau (roughly a senior Lieutenant in British terms) 
      • CC = Capitaine de Corvette (RN Lieutenant Commander) 
      • CF = Capitaine de Frégate (RN Commander) 
      • CV = Capitaine de Vaisseau (RN Captain) 
    • Dinassaut = Division Navale d'Assaut (Naval Assault Division) 
    • BMEO = Brigade Marine d'Extrême-Orient 
    • CLA = Compagnie Légère d'Accompagnement (Native Attached Light Infantry Company, typically 80 natives with 4 European officers/NCOs) 
    • LCT = Landing Craft, Tank (large landing craft always in short supply in Indochina!), usually British LCT 4s although a few American LCT 6s were also used
    • EA = Engins d'Assaut (Assault Craft - French steel copy of the LCVP
    • LCA = Landing Craft, Assault (small, British craft) 
    • LCM = Landing Craft, Mechanised (British or US craft - probably the most common LC in service. Either British LCM 1 or LCM 3 or the longer American LCM 6
    • LCVP = Landing Craft, Vehicle Personnel (US small craft) 
    • LCI = Landing Craft, Infantry (large, US craft used as command vessel) 
    • LSIL = Landing Ship, Infantry (Large) (large infantry carrier ship - successors of the LCI - used as command vessels) 
    • LSSL = Landing Ship, Support (Large) (ex-US craft used for command and fire support duties) 
    • DUKW = US amphibious truck 
    • Crabe = M29 Weasel amphibious light cargo carrier 
    • LVT = Landing Vehicle, Tracked (US amphibious vehicles also known as amtracks or Buffaloes) 
    • LVT(A) = Landing Vehicle, Tracked (Armoured) (Armoured version of LVT with an M-8 HMC turret - 75mm howitzer armed) 
    • STCAN/FOM = Services Techniques des Constructions et Armes Navales / France Outre Mer (8 or 11m armoured patrol boats built by the French for service in Indochina. Low draught and silhouette, with a V-shaped hull resistant to mine damage. Widely used, but not officially part of the Dinassauts until 1953) 
    • RTM = Régiment de Tirailleurs Marocains (Moroccan Infantry Regiment) 
    • BM = Bataillon de Marche (March Battalion) 
    • RMSEO = Régiment de marche de spahis d'Extrême-Orient (Far-Eastern Spahi March Regiment - spahis are North African cavalrymen) 
    • RIC = Régiment d'Infanterie Coloniale (Colonial Infantry Regiment - French personnel) 
    • RTA = Régiment de Tirailleurs Algériens (Algerian Infantry Regiment) 
    • GRC = ? 
    • BCCP = Bataillon Colonial de Chasseurs Parachutistes (Colonial Parachute Battalion) 
    • REC = Régiment Étranger de Cavalerie (Foreign Legion Cavalry Regiment - i.e. armoured) 

    Main Sources

    • Lt. Col. Victor CROIZAT, USMC; "Vietnam River Warfare 1945-1975"; Blandford; 1986; ISBN 0-7137-1830-7 
    • Jean-Pierre PISSARDY; "Flottilles Fluviales et Dinassaut"; Militaria Magazine No.17; Feb. 1987; Histoire et Collections, Paris. 

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