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Guns of the Viet Minh

Viet Minh Logistical Systems

At the start of the war, the Viet Minh obviously did not have the traditional requirements to raise an army - i.e. a nation with formal government, taxation system, military training facilities, local factories, and the ability to purchase arms and equipment on the world market. Initially these hurdles were overcome by the use of looted or otherwise "acquired" weapons, and a mixture of untrained peasant militias ("self-defence groups") and guerrilla/bandit gangs in the hill-country. Leaders were mainly communist activists, ex-bandit chiefs, or had prior experience in the military (either French or otherwise). Nationalist China provided some training facilities and weaponry during WW2 as part of the OSS-led scheme of anti-Japanese partisans, and much Japanese weaponry (together with a few advisors!) fell into VM hands during the confusion of the Japanese surrender in 1945. Later, with the Communist victory in China of 1949, secure bases for training and weapon production/distribution could be placed beyond or close to the Chinese border with Tonkin. The quantity and diversity of VM weaponry increased steadily throughout the war, as did the skill with which this material was distributed, and the training standards of the regular troops.

Weapon Production and Procurement

"Weapons are an important, but not decisive, factor in war. The decisive factor is the man and not the weapon."
- Mao; On Protracted War; 1938

As stated above, the main sources for weapons during the early years of the war, apart from traditional hunting weaponry, were the French, the Japanese, and the OSS/Nationalist Chinese. French equipment largely came from the Indochinese soldiery - whether by defection or capture/death of the original owner, though some was also gained from the Japanese after these disarmed and interned the French garrison of Indochina. Although Japan surrendered in August 1945, the Japanese Army was left in place to maintain order until things could be "sorted out", during which time many Japanese troops either gave their weaponry to the fledgling VM army, or let them take it. In some cases, Japanese officers and men not only gave their weaponry to the local VM, but also provided training in the use and maintenance of said equipment. The motivation here seems to be a general Japanese antipathy to the return of Western hegemony to Asia. American material, via OSS or Nationalist China, was probably a less important source, but still welcomed by the early rebels. With the mass surrender of many Indochinese garrisons (including that of the Palace of Representatives in Hanoi, who yielded 200 carbines and a large supply of grenades), together with the donation of equipment by the retreating Japanese forces (including a windfall for the VM when a stock of weaponry - much originally intended for China, but which had been held at Haiphong by the French in 1940 - was handed over by the Japanese. This included numbers of AA guns, AT guns, and Russian 7.62mm rifles with AT rounds), by the end of 1945 estimates of weaponry in VM hands included:

  • 35,000 small-arms (rifles, SMGs, carbines, pistols, etc.)
  • 1,350 LMGs
  • 200 mortars
  • 54 artillery pieces (of various types)

In the early days of the fighting in Indochina, the guerrillas were armed with a variety of weapons including crossbows, hunting rifles, and true military firearms from various sources. These allowed them to start a guerrilla war against the French, but did not give a solid base on which to start building an army. Dang Van Viet, who became a Colonel in charge of the fighting around RC4, recalls the early days of 1947:

"This defence in depth was also made necessary by our poor equipment, as antiquated as it was deficient. A primer which did not ignite or hand grenade which did not explode were common occurrences in those early days of resistance against the French. Only none of us was deterred or appalled by such malfunctions because to own a firearm was already a matter of great pride for men like us newly freed from slavery. In fact, in colonial days, to be found in possession of so much as a hunter's knife or a sword in your home could mean disaster. So, imagine how proud we were to sport a short-barrelled magazine rifle or a long Russian infantry rifle!"
- Col Dang Van Viet; Highway 4. The Border Campaign (1947-1950); Hanoi, 1990

The VM command was faced with fighting an opponent with modern, heavy equipment including large numbers of automatic weapons, tanks and aircraft. They needed a well-equipped force to do this, and the first aims were to acquire the means to arm and train this. The plans for weapon supply were:

  • Firstly (and most urgently), capture weapons from the French.
  • Create factories for local production of weapons and munitions.
  • Procure by all means weapons from foreign sources (mainly by purchase).

We shall look at each of these in turn.

Weapons Seized From The French
On 23rd March 1944, in a gesture of Franco-Vietnamese solidarity against the Japanese, 165 Remington rifles and 40 carbines were given to Giap's men at Chora. (At that point, Giap's unit apparently only had a Thompson SMG and 2 Colt revolvers between them). On the 28th March 1944, further weaponry was probably given under similar circumstances by Colonel Reul.

Giap and his men then seized about 30 guns in the raid on Phai Kat (24th December 1944), and 16 rifles from taking the blockhouse at Na Gam (25th December 1944). At the end of December 1944, they failed to take the post at Dong Mu - but still made off with 5 rifles.

In the spring of 1945, the VM obtained considerable supplies of Japanese weaponry.

During the chaos that followed the Japanese capitulation, much of the weaponry held by the Indochinese Garde fell into the hands of the VM. On the 10th July, the 500-man Garde garrison of Quang Yen (near Haiphong) surrendered - and their weapons passed to the VM. The Palace of Delegates was seized on 19th August, and provided 200 carbines plus a supply of grenades (which were quickly distributed amongst the troops).

A continual source of weapons through the war was from disaffected or captured Indochinese troops in scattered posts, and also from ambushes on CEFEO troops.

A major windfall came in the disastrous (for the CEFEO) RC4 battles. Cao Bang was evacuated on the 2nd October 1950, with the loss of 4,800 men (killed or missing) and a hoard of material. On the 11th October 1950, Lang Son was abandoned in haste, and with it another huge stock of equipment. The total lost by the CEFEO was:

  • 13 artillery pieces
  • 120 mortars
  • 450 vehicles
  • 3 armoured platoons
  • 240 Machine Guns
  • 1,200 LMGs
  • 1,200 SMGs
  • 8,500 rifles
  • 10,000 shells (75mm, 105mm and 155mm)
  • 600,000 litres of petrol
  • quantities of food, clothing, etc.

While the CEFEO often captured significant quantities of weaponry from the VM, they were still a net supplier to their enemy!

Local Arms Production
The Vietnamese are an industrious, ingenious race - and the VM readily produced numerous clandestine arms workshops throughout Vietnam. They also established a hidden factory in Thailand, and others just across the Chinese border in Yunnan. These eventually produced rifles, SMGs, grenades, ammunition, mortars, RCLs, bazookas, mines (both land and water-borne), Bangalore Torpedoes, and other explosive devices.

The first factories were set up to produce the relatively simple British Sten gun (SMG), using machinery and material either bought or stolen. During 1946-47 these workshops produced around 30,000 Stens. In January 1947, a further development was the fabrication of the first bazooka by Nioc, an engineering diplomate.

On the 13th October 1946, another engineer - Tran Dai N'Ghia - was made Head of the Armaments Department, and organised the removal of the machine tools from the Caron factory at Haiphong, and had them transported into the mountains. By 1948 they were producing 60mm and 81mm mortars here, and by 1950 even 75mm RCLs were under manufacture.

There were workshops in many villages (particularly in the hill country) making ammunition and, in some cases, "pineapple" (F1) grenades. Rudimentary moulds were used, and often captured in CEFEO raids. However, major facilities were found at:

  • Thai Nguyen: 1,500 VM soldiers worked with several hundred Japanese ex-military personnel. This major factory produced 50 rifles and 10 SMGs per day, and 3 or 4 machine guns per month.
  • Quang Ngai: 300 men and women worked under the direction of the ex-Japanese Army Major Saito.
  • Phu To: workshop.
  • Thap Muoi: factory where 500 technicians were helped by a mixture of Japanese and German (ex-Legion) deserters.
  • Tra Ling (Chinese border): Chinese technicians making rifles.

VM produced "bazooka" and SMG, on display in the Army Museum, Hanoi

VM produced "bazooka" and SMG, on display in the Army Museum, Hanoi (Author's photo)

Purchased, Donated or Otherwise Acquired Weaponry
In the summer of 1945, an OSS mission under US Major Patty had given arms and training to the VM guerrillas under Giap. The actual number of weapons is unknown, but were most likely just a small number of individual weapons.

The Maoist victory in China had left the Communist Chinese with huge stocks of US-pattern material captured from the Nationalists (500,00 rifles plus other weaponry). As the Communist Chinese were already using and manufacturing Soviet-pattern equipment, and the VM could capture quantities of US material from the CEFEO, much of this ex-Nationalist weaponry was passed onto the Vietnamese rebels. With direct contact between China and Tonkin, the 9th and 98th Regiments were re-equipped in China, together with the 246th Regiment (Ho Chi Minh's bodyguard).

A Sino-Vietnamese accord was signed on 1st April 1950, and in May 1950 the VM received from China:

  • 50,000 rifles
  • 2,500 trucks (Soviet Molotovas?)
  • 200 LMGs
  • 100 machine guns
  • 30 mortars (81mm)
  • AA guns (37mm?)
  • 120mm (Soviet) mortars
  • Czech "bazookas" (P27)
  • Czech RCLs (T21?)

From May to September 1950, 20,000 men were armed, equipped and trained in China. Additionally, the VM was sent:

  • 40,000 rifles
  • 125 machine guns
  • 75 mortars
  • 3,000 cases of ammunition
  • 870 tonnes of other military supplies

A clandestine traffic in arms flowed into Vietnam along the Mekong or by sea from China, Thailand and Taiwan. This picked up from 1951, and in early 1952 some 200 tonnes of armaments per month was delivered to the VM, rising to 900 tonnes per month by the end of the year. This figure averaged 1000 tonnes per month in 1953, and was at 4000 tonnes per month by 1954. In 1953, General Navarre wrote that "the VM infantry is provided with automatic arms, mortars and recoilless weapons on a greater scale than ours". A comparison of the typical armament for French and VM battalions in 1953 was made by Capitaine Jacques Despuech (cited in Pierre LABROUSSE, "La Méthode Vietminh"):

French Armament Viet Minh
624 Rifles 500
133 SMGs 200
42 LMGs 20
4 81mm mortars 8
8 60mm mortars -
RCLs -
Bazookas 3

Other weapons were purchased via Thailand or the Philippines, often using money raised from drug sales. (It is notable that much of the fighting between CEFEO and VM in Laos concerned the "rights" to harvest the opium crop!).

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