Viet Minh strategy and tactics
|It is clear that the French were defeated by the Viet Minh,
is usual to attribute this to several factors - poor support for the
from France, an overstretched CEFEO, supplies of equipment from
China (and, at points, the USA!) to the insurgents, the impossibility
fighting an elusive opponent in difficult terrain...But what were the
tactics and stratagems used by the VM in their fight against the
This is an attempt to answer that question.
Principles Behind VM Strategy and TacticsEvery Communist must grasp the truth, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."
Vo Nguyen Giap was the mastermind behind the VM military effort, and he laid down principles underlying VM actions, based on Maoist doctrine. Giap fully understood the works and writings of Mao, Trotsky, Sun Tzu - and was able to create his own methods without slavishly following these guides. As Ho Chi Minh said of the struggle for Vietnamese independence:
"It is the fight between tiger and elephant. If the tiger stands his ground, the elephant will crush him with its mass. But, if he conserves his mobility, he will finally vanquish the elephant, who bleeds from a multitude of cuts."
(Obviously, the elephant is the CEFEO and the tiger is the VM). But, while such rhetoric is of some use in setting the background to these tactics, this page is supposed to be discussing the realities of VM combat.
Giap, following Mao, developed the principle of three stages to the struggle:
In the guerrilla phase, VM political agents moved around the villages teaching and indoctrinating. But the French could rarely discover these agents who (in the words of Mao) "moved like fish in the sea". If an area was quiet, was it truly pacified or just reorganising for future campaigns? It was difficult for the French to know.
In Sun Tzu it is stated that "Know the enemy and know yourself, and in a hundred battles you will never be defeated" - this is very true for Ho, Giap and the VM. They had lived with, and been ruled by, the French - and had seen the French defeated by the Japanese. They knew their own people, and knew that the French yoke was too heavy - if they offered something better then many would listen. But the French seemed ignorant of the true strength of the VM - initially, when they could have crushed the movement, they took little notice of another group of "bandits". Then, as things escalated they dreamed up ever wilder schemes to defeat the VM on a military basis, until finally - when the VM tide was rolling down on them like a tidal wave - they were forced to back down. Little or no attempt was ever made by the French administration to fight the VM on a political level, and this, I feel, is where they failed...
Tactics of the First Phase: Building a BaseThe VM had started to move back into Tonkin from China in 1942, and it was here that they made their base. The movement was always strongest in the north, and the "homeland" of the VM was the Viet Bac area of mountainous jungle around Bac Can. The VM gradually developed similar base areas (Chien Khu) in the region north-east of Lang Son, the mountain region of Yen Bai, Thai N'Guyen (the "traditional" stronghold of the PCI), Quang N'Gai, Pac Bo, Ninh Binh and Dong Trieu. These areas were all extremely difficult terrain, and the French maintained only scattered posts through them. In these Chien Khu, the VM began to set up an infrastructure parallel to the French administration.
Initially working with local and national groups of various political colours, they established themselves with the hard-pressed peasantry. Beatings and assassinations of money-lenders and landlords (the traditional foes of the peasant), education campaigns (the literacy programme was particularly popular), help with farming tasks, and other positive benefits won many over to the VM cause. Obviously, the education was partly a process of political indoctrination, and the VM also organised a nationalist/communist press, travelling theatre companies, radio broadcasts and later films. In return for their support, the VM required taxes, ration supplies, intelligence (i.e. on CEFEO troop movements), and service as porters when needed. Village self-defence militias were formed, being the base of the later VM military, and full compliance with this system was gradually enforced. In the face of reluctance by villagers, terror tactics and physical violence were readily resorted to. When the VM zones spread, this system went with it, and in the south there was certainly less enthusiasm than in Tonkin and much of Annam.
The VM had much of its early support from the educated "mandarin" caste of Vietnamese. As these largely worked as civil servants, a ready supply of agents was in place. Similarly, many Vietnamese in military positions also acted as intelligence sources for the VM. Thus a spy network was in position virtually from the start of the conflict. (Also, not only Indochinese worked for the VM - some Europeans did as well!).
With these Chien Khu established, and peasant support increasing, the VM moved onto Phase Two. It must be noted that the activity described above continued during the subsequent phases - as did Phase Two activity during Phase Three.
Tactics of the Second Phase: Guerrilla WarfareThe Vietnamese had a tradition of "guerrilla" warfare stretching back over 2000 years. From the days when the Chou Dynasty Chinese invaded the Tonkin area (around 300 BC) the "Annamese" would withdraw into the mountains and jungles to continue a war of skirmish and ambush with their new "masters". Even the Mongols (who invaded the whole of Indochina) decided to control the coastal plains and cities, leaving the "back country" to the rebels. As an aside, the primitive crossbow in use by Vietnamese infantry of the 7th and 8th Centuries AD was still in use as a booby-trap device against both the French and Americans in the Twentieth Century...
That is not to say that the Vietnamese were all "born guerrillas", but the country was eminently suitable for such warfare, and the people had a long tradition to draw on. With the mixture of rugged mountains, dense jungles, deltas and swamps criss-crossed with rivers, communications across the colony were always difficult, and tended to be restricted to a limited number of routes. The French had, in fact, spent considerable time and effort in improving the road and railway network through Indochina during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries - which actually worked against them in the Indochina War.
The tactics used by the VM can be roughly grouped into Sabotage, Traps, Terrorism, Camouflage and Ambushes.
The classic touches de piano (piano keys) and nids de poule (potholes) patterns of road sabotage were trademarks of VM activity during the Indochina War. The piano key pattern was a series of trenches spaced to make it impossible to "zig-zag" a vehicle between them.On encountering these, any convoy or motorised unit would be forced to halt and await repair of the road. At this point they could be ambushed, or it could be present to stop them from relieving a garrison under attack further along the road.
Other tactics in this area were bridge demolition and mining of roads. Ambushes were frequently "triggered" by minefields (see below). Roadblocks could be made from railway track or logs placed across the road - and possibly mined/booby-trapped.
Damage to Vehicles and Aircraft
Another tactic aimed at unnerving/disrupting the French, a typical attack on an airfield would consist of an initial night attack on the aircraft, attempting to destroy these by fire or explosive. Whether this was successful or not, the French guard on the aircraft would be increased. The VM would then wait a few days and carry out sabotage on the airbase vehicles (removing components, or again using fire or explosives to destroy them). By attacking relatively unguarded items, and varying the targets, the maximum disruption to the French could be gained by the minimum VM effort.
Other Disruptive Tactics!
I'm not quite sure how to describe this - it is from Tony Geraghty; "March Or Die"; Grafton; 1986:
There was, in truth, nowhere for the legionnaire to desert to except the grave in a country where everyone, including locally recruited kitchen staff, was the enemy. At Trung Chan in Cochinchina a company of 2/13 DBLE was poisoned by hallucinogenic cabbage called datura. After dinner, some men moved about on all fours, barking. The captain in command wandered 'like a ghost', naked on the parade square. Only one soldier, dieting because of illness, was unaffected and able to summon help from headquarters. A relief column reached the company just ahead of the Viet Minh.
"Home-made" Mines and Bombs
As in later years, the Vietnamese guerrillas made use of dud shells and captured munitions to make ad-hoc explosive charges, "Bangalore Torpedoes" (tubes of bamboo filled with gunpowder and inserted into barbed wire or other barricades - when ignited these would clear a path through which troops could pass), mines, bombs, etc. These could be rigged to trip-wires across paths, or attached to roadblocks. If these were discovered prior to explosion then engineers would be called in to clear the mines or charges (sometimes only to find that they were dummies), but the convoy/unit was held up whilst this was being carried out.
The famous trap from the "Vietnam War" was in widespread use during this earlier conflict. A simple device with steel or bamboo spikes attached to wooden boards, the pungi were either used alone (spread along the edges of paddy-fields, or strewn amongst grass) or positioned in likely "cover" at ambush sites (i.e. when an ambush started, it was normal for troops to "go to ground" behind logs, rocks or other cover. Sometimes the VM would have "pre-prepared" these areas with pungi - thus the soldiers would throw themselves on top of the traps...). Pungi were commonly smeared with excrement or other noxious material to infect the wounds which they caused. They penetrated the rubber soles of the typical French pataugas ("splasher") boot fairly easily (see the Armoured Pataugas page for the French response).
Particularly in villages (in doorways, rice-caches, etc) there were grenades poised with the pin removed, and the lever wedged down. If this was disturbed, the grenade exploded...
Deadfalls, Cross-bow Traps and other jungle devices
Traps originally designed for hunting animals were successfully used against the French. Tree branches could be pulled back under tension and held in place, with spikes attached, with a release mechanism triggered by a trip-wire. The branch would then snap back into place, impaling a soldier on the spikes.
Other traps included falling rocks dropping from trees when a trigger was inadvertently operated by a passing soldier, heavy clay balls swinging down at head or chest height when triggered, cross-bow bolts fired in similar manner from positions beside the trail, or other ingenious variants along these lines. All were intended to kill or maim CEFEO personel, and instill fear amongst the troops - after all, death or horrific injury could come at any moment from such traps.
Pits were laid with pungi at the base, and lightly covered with branches or vegetation - the depth of the pit gave force to the blow when the pungi were contacted. A nastier version still had the pungi attached to hinged boards overlying the pit - when the board was trodden on, the foot descended into the pit and the pungi sprang into the calves and ankles...it was then difficult to remove the foot from the pit and pungi. Alternatively, the pungi could be placed (with the spikes pointing down at an angle) on the pit walls, again to target the sides of the foot, ankle and calf.
Bars, restaurants, cafés, cinemas, brothels and other known haunts of off-duty CEFEO troops were all targets for VM bombs. These attacks had a two-fold effect. First, there was a good chance of killing or injuring French troops, and secondly it prevented the French from having "safe" R&R areas. This would have significant effects on troop morale in the CEFEO.
Attacks on Civilian Targets
The famous "night belongs to Charlie" comment from the
War was just as true in this conflict. The French military had great
in protecting the "friendly" civilian population. As in all such wars,
the French colonists were particularly vulnerable to attack by the VM,
and the military had to protect them as best it could. The villages
rarely garrisoned, which meant that any headman who was friendly to the
French could expect reprisals from the VM at some point. It was in any
village's interest to be neutral at best, which in turn gave an
of civilian collaboration with the VM to the French military - this
to French raids on villages to search out caches and VM troops, which
civilian hostility to the French...
The VM developed great tactical and strategic use of tunnels - either as shelters for troops or caches of arms and other equipment. The French were only vaguely aware of the existance of these systems - the USA became better aquainted with the Vietnamese tunnels, but even they did not realise how extensive and complex these diggings could be.
With ventilation tubes made from bamboo (and opening out into vegetated areas, making their discovery very unlikely) and entry points either well camouflaged or even underwater - it is not surprising that the French did not often find these positions!
In a typical ambush on a road column, the VM would mine and/or block a road as it passed through a wooded valley. Here the vehicles had no chance to move off-road, and once they became stopped by the obstacles, the VM troops would begin to fire small arms at the soft vehicles and personnel, and RCLs or bazookas (if available) at AFVs. Mortar and/or artillery fire could then register on the static targets, and once the vehicles were disabled an assault by the VM infantry was made to wipe out any survivors. The ambushes did not always succeed, and on occasion the French managed to extricate themselves and even inflict heavy losses on the ambushers.
Tactics of the Third Phase: Mobile WarfareDuring the Guerrilla Phase, the VM military gained experience, equipment and confidence. They rarely attacked strongly-held positions, and avoided high-intensity combat. Once Giap felt that this phase was complete, the chu luc regulars began to campaign against the French in open, mobile warfare.
Chinese instructors were active in training the VM main-force, and many of the chu luc were trained in China from 1949. With control of the Chinese border region, the VM could set up regular supply routes from China, and keep large formations in the field by use of local portars to move material. The VM troops were lightly equipped, and thus able to move rapidly across rough terrain. Their fieldcraft was excellent, and in particular they were good at hiding artillery and AA guns in caves or other camouflaged positions (though at the expense of restricting field of fire). Often French aircraft received flak from unknown positions, and CEFEO units came under artillery fire for which they had little counter.
With superb intelligence from agents or observation, the VM planned attacks meticulously. Weak points and important positions were identified, and the units involved were trained using models or "post-and-string" mock-ups of the targets.
Much use was made of night-attacks to reduce French effectiveness. When a post was to be attacked, diversionary actions were carried out by local forces, and ambushes set up on approach routes (road or river) to catch reinforcements as they arrived. Mortars, RCLs and artillery were brought into action quickly, targeting weapons pits and command bunkers, and suicidal assaults by troops with sachel charges and Bangalore Torpedoes would clear wire for the next wave of attacks.
The morale advantage of close-order, "human wave" assaults was held to be more beneficial than reducing casualties by dispersal. This doctrine won many successes, but in the 1951 battles the VM played into French hands when such assaults were launched against positions with well dug-in, determined infantry with tank, artillery and air support (including napalm).
Except in the case of poorly defended posts, the VM tended to take heavy casualties - but attacked anyway. This unnerved the CEFEO troops, as did the VM doctrine of abandonning units in trouble. While the French would always attempt to reinforce beleagured units (often taking heavy casualties in the process), VM troops in similar difficulties would be left to their fate. Thus the CEFEO could be brought to battle virtually at the VM's beck and call, but not vice versa.
A quick study of Mao Zedong's theories is worthwhile for anyone interested in VM tactics and strategy (which developed from Maoist doctrine). A good source of Mao's work is at Mao Tse-Tung Internet Archive. Another useful source is Sun Tzu "The Art of War", which is commonly found in the business section of bookshops!