French riverine forces
|Many parts of Indochina are
with rivers, making land movement difficult and river boats become an
alternative. The French were well aware of this, and from virtually the
start of the campaign against the Viet Minh they organised riverine
of ex-US landing craft (which, due to their draught, were ideal for
shallow waterways) and locally produced small-craft into combat and
units with mixed naval and army personnel. The initial, somewhat ad-hoc
units evolved into the "Divisions navales d'assaut" - usually
to "Dinassaut". A forgotten part of a forgotten war, these river forces
developed workable battle-tactics and equipment for the war in the
and this is a small attempt to revive interest in them.
Origin of the SpeciesVietnam (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.
Compagnie 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 FlotillasJaubert 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:
Operations by FAN:
Typical Organisation and Equipment of a Dinassaut, 1947-49
The UnitsThere 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:
The infantry attachment varied, including:
The infantry attachment was first Commando "Sieffer", then Commando 63.
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)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.
The infantry attachment included a company of the GRC, and the "de Montfort" Marine Commando (during the last four months of 1947).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.
CLA: Commando 61LSIL, 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.
CLA: Commando 65