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A Fatal Gamble

Northern Indochina, October 1-15, 1951

By Wild Bill Wilder
A legionnaire of 2e BEP at Nghia Lo

(This article first appeared on The Gamer's Net and is reproduced with Bill Wilder's permission)

Changing fortunes of war

Defeats of French forces in 1950 in Indochina had given the initiative to General Giap’s People’s Army. Known as the Viet Minh, the victories secured had opened supply lines badly needed by the Communist forces to further build their strength for a final open confrontation with their enemies.

French troops, however, had rebounded in the spring and summer of 1951. A series of French victories at Dong Trieu, Vinh Yen, and the battle at the Day River, had shocked the rebels. Giap became more concerned that his supply lines might again come under French control. To forestall that, he ordered the 312th Vietminh Division in the Nghia Lo valley to occupy the area.

The only effective resistance to the Vietminh was the 1st Tai Battalion, divided into ten groups and scattered throughout the valley in fortified outposts. It was commanded by a French officer, Major Girardin. It consisted of 150 French officers and more than 1,000 local militiamen. It included a command post in Nghia Lo itself, four rifle companies, a support company and a 75mm Howitzer battery.

The Communists would counter this force with the use of an entire division, the 312th. It was a fresh unit and full of enthusiasm. They were ready to fight. The commander of the 312th, Colonel Le Trong Tan, decided to enter from the Northeast, sent two regiments, the 141st and the 209th in different directions, and open the supply line to the Tai border. The third regiment, the 165th would initiate attacks from the east and cut off the southeastern exit from the valley.

The Nghia Lo valley nestles in a depression between the Red and Black rivers. The valley is over 10 kilometers long and a little more than 4 kilometers wide. It is surrounded by mountainous terrain on all sides. Through the northeast corner of the valley ran Highway 134, which linked with Highway 13 some 15 miles to the east.

The famed French “Paras”

The increased presence of Vietminh troops in the area in the middle of September 1951 prompted French leaders in Indochina to suspect an attack in the area. General de Lattre’s second in command, General Raoul Salan decided to reinforce the area with four companies of civilian irregulars.

On September 20th, Salan, in conference by long distance with de Lattre (who was soliciting material support in Washington D.C.), it was determined that the French would make a stand at Nghia Lo. It would be a serious test of arms and will on both sides.

On the night of October 1st, the Vietminh 165th Regiment launched its first assault against outposts in the area of Ca Vinh. Finding strong resistance, the Communist troops by-passed the fort and moved to capture Ba Khe to the southeast. By the next day, the Vietminh were in control of the entrances and exits to the valley. It was then that Salan decided to call in the “paras.”

The first unit to go in was the 8th Colonial Parachute Battalion (8th BPC) near Gia Hoi. That way they could attack the Vietminh from the rear. The aircraft used in the drop were not sufficient for only one flight, so two were arranged. The planes were C-47 Skytrains and obsolescent German Ju-52s. The flights and drops were executed flawlessly. Soon the paratroopers were in position and began their attacks.

On the next day, 141st initiated the first attacks against the town of Nghia Lo itself. The first two assault waves were beaten back by the Tai defenders but the relentless push of the enemy soon had them with 50 yards of the central command bunker.

Volleys of rifle fire and the staccato thunder of .50 caliber machine guns finally brought the Vietminh to a standstill. They withdrew, leaving over 100 dead in the wire and littering the ground around Tai positions.

On the 4th numerous firefights took place all over the valley in its northeast corner as advancing French paras ran into battalions of enemy troops. The superior numbers of the Vietminh took its toll of the French. The 16th Company suddenly found itself surrounded at Van Ban and had to fight its way to safety.

Fierce Fighting

As the fighting in the northwest died down, the 165th regiment made its beginning moves to attack. The first position to be hit was the one at Son Buc. Barbed wire entanglements and interlocking automatic weapons fire held the attackers at bay. By the afternoon the fighting subsided on the ground. From the air, French B-26 medium bombers and F8F Bearcat fighters continued to pour fire into enemy positions.

It had already been decided by the French command that more troops would be needed. The quickest, most efficient way to get them there would be another airdrop. This time, it would be the 2nd Foreign Parachute Battalion (2nd BPC) would be inserted. This airdrop would be called Operation Therese.

It went off without a problem, though it would a hard march of nine hours through difficult terrain for the toughened paratroopers to get into position to save Gia Hoi. The commander of the 2nd was Major Raffali, and eager young ex-cavalry officer who had already earned the respect of his men. The first objective was the relief of Gia Hoi. If possible, they were then to move on and offer assistance to French units still defending Nghia Lo.

Receiving word of the landing of a 2nd Para battalion, Colonel Tan pushed his units even harder to get the job done. Another costly assault against Nghia Lo failed to overcome the intense French resistance. Again, accurate close air support became the deciding vote in the contest. The French fliers took desperate chances to drive back the Vietminh. One young Bearcat pilot came in so low one of his propeller blades clipped a tall tree at the outskirts of Nghia Lo, sending it into an immediate spin and fiery crash less than a quarter of a mile of the action. One French paratrooper stood suddenly at attention, as bullets zinged around him, and stiffly saluted a fallen comrade who had given his life to save those under attack.

Seeing the futility of continuing, Tan then order his units to withdraw. The French envisioned a victory here and were not about to let up in their pressure. Now a third paratroop unit, the 10th Mountain Parachute Battalion (10th BPCP) was alerted to prepare for a drop directly into Nghia Lo to reinforce the Tais.

Suddenly Colonel Tan was no longer the aggressor. His forces were now obligated to take a defensive stance and find a way to extricate themselves from the trap that was being sprung upon them.

When the 2nd BPC began pushing the enemy forces back into the hills, a company of the 8th was ordered to conduct a patrol and set up defenses to cut off the fleeing Vietminh. Captain Gautier of the 16th Company led the patrol personally and within an hour was heavily engaged with the enemy. Now the escape and supply route for the Vietminh might be cut off and Tan directed all available forces to the scene.

Soon Gautier and his men were surrounded and greatly outnumbered. Gautier was seriously wounded in the heavy fighting and ordered a withdrawal toward Nam Minh. One platoon would protect the withdrawing troops. It was led by a young Lieutenant Truchot.

The fighting soon went from firing weapons to close combat, with knives, knuckles and knees. In less than an hour, Truchot’s positions were overrun. Eighteen of his men died before the rest, now out of ammunition, finally surrendered. No one knows with certainty what happened to those Frenchmen but not one, including Captain Gautier would ever return from captivity, if perchance they had been taken alive.

Feeling the noose tightening around them, the Vietminh launched human wave attacks against the French paras. The 2nd BEP’s fourth company fought off five such assaults but at a heavy cost. Under the command of Lieutenant Louis-Calixte, the remainder of the company fell back in good order into the battalion’s main line of defenses.

In another area, the Tai 3rd Company, led by Lt. Saint-Marc fought hard all afternoon. They cleared the Vietminh from a hill blocking their path, taking several wounded prisoners. In the exchange of fire, the executive officer of the company was killed when a bullet entered his neck and severed his spinal cord.

Later that night, in the monsoon blackness, a legionnaire, enraged by the death of the executive officer slipped through the ranks of enemy wounded and slit all their throats. When what he had done was discovered a horrified senior NCO offered to mete out the same treatment to the offender. Lt. Saint-Marc would not allow it, pleading that some sort of sanity had to exist in all the bloodshed. After the fighting, the guilty man was court-martialed for his crime and imprisoned.

By October 10th, the northern attacking forces of Vietminh were so battered that they could not continue the assault and withdrew from around Nghia Lo. In order to take some of the pressure off these troops, Tan ordered new attacks in the south with units of the 165th Regiment. Three hard hours of attack did not penetrate the Tai defenses at Son Buc. Approaching paras of the 10th BPCP finally discouraged the Communists attempts to take the town and a general withdrawal began.

An Incomplete Conclusion

It would not be completed until October 18th, and that under heavy pressure from pursuing French paras and the constant rain of death from above by the French Air Force. In one action, a Hmong partisan, part of the French Special Forces group, “Groupement de Commandos Mixtes Aeroportes (GCMA) was armed with a radio and a direct connection to the French flights above him. Having located a severely depleted withdrawing Vietminh battalion, he called in an airstrike that virtually annihilated those who had survived the earlier fighting.

Final casualties were estimated at over 3,500 of the Vietminh and over 600 of the French/Tai forces. The severe setback at Nghia Lo proved very disconcerting to Giap who for the moment reverted back to guerrilla hit and run tactics.

Of the French Paras involved in the fighting, the 2nd Legion paratroops and the 8th Colonials would soon meet the 312th Division in another fierce encounter at Hoa Binh in less than two months. The 1st Tai Battalion was reinforced by the second and retained control of the area for another year. At that time, Colonel Tan and his 312th entered the valley a second time. On that occasion, the valley would fall into Communist control. History would later demonstrate that even a victory such as this could not change the destined eventual defeat of French control in Indochina.

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