of a Task Force”
or, whoever said war was fair? -
of a Task Force: Briefing
French Captain looks back at the slow-moving column of trucks and men,
winding its way through the Vietnamese High Plateau.
The sun beats down, and a cloud of fine white dust hangs over the
convoy. Wearily the Captain
orders the convoy to stop, and sitting back in his jeep, he scans the
surrounding countryside with his binoculars, searching for any sign of a
Viet-Minh ambush. Nothing moves.
Wiping the sweat from eyes, the Captain swears roundly at the heat,
the terrain, and the entire country. Suddenly,
a rifle shot rings out, and the lifeless body of the Captain slumps to one
side. At once the countryside
erupts with whistles, bugle calls, and explosions, announcing a Viet-Minh
ambush of the stalled French convoy.
at least that’s how it happens in the movies …
is an account of a game played in
in October 2005 by the Provisional Wing of the Hong Kong Wargamers’
Society (i.e. Peter Hunt and myself). The
game is based on the ambush of Groupe Mobile 100 by the Viet-Minh in 1954.
who have seen “We were Soldiers Once and Young” will
remember the ambush of Groupe Mobile 100 from the first few minutes of the
film. The film captures
perfectly the stunning impact of Viet-Minh ambushes (but is
less-than-perfect in representing the tactics, uniforms, and communication
systems used by the French in
Mobile 100 was formed in November 1953, as a motorised infantry brigade.
The main element of the GM100 was the Battalion
the French infantry battalion that served with the UN forces in
. Following the Korean
armistice, the Battalion
was transferred to
, where it was bolstered by several Vietnamese companies, and split into two
battalions. It was joined by a
battalion of the 43rd Colonial Infantry Regiment, as well as an artillery
battery of the 10th Colonial Artillery Regiment, and designated “GM100”.
was assigned to the Central Highlands in February 1954, to act as a
“fire-brigade” and to coordinate with Operation “Atlante” (a French
amphibious assault on Qui Nhon). Throughout
early 1954, GM100 was involved in heavy skirmishing against Viet-Minh
regional and main-force units, and suffered a steady drain of casualties.
Following the French defeat at
Dien Bien Phu
, GM100 was ordered to abandon its positions around the town An Khe, and
retreat to Pleiku (90km away). Loaded
down with trucks, civilian, and supplies (including a consignment of
folding-chairs that some idiot insisted on bringing), GM100 made slow
progress. On the road
between An Khe and Pleiku, GM100 fell into several Viet-Minh ambushes, which
cost GM100 over 50% of its infantry, 85% of
its vehicles, and all of its artillery.
in Pleiku, GM100 was reformed, re-equipped, and sent back into battle.
On 17 July 1954 (3 days before the ceasefire with the Viet-Minh was
signed), the 1st Coree Battalion was assigned to a French force moving from
Pleiku to Ban Me Thuot. This
force was ambushed at the Chu Dreh pass, and the 1st Battalion Coree was
effectively destroyed. By the
end of the battle, the battalion’s 1st company (which numbered 172 men at
its formation) could count only 17 survivors.
October game assumed that the fighting in
continued beyond July 1954, and that the French had decided to abandon
Pleiku. The game places a
battered Mobile Group, encumbered with friendly civilians, trying to force
its way along a winding jungle road, against two reinforced Viet-Minh
terrain was based on “Miniature World” terrain pieces, and some
very tasty trees from “Realistic Modelling Supplies”.
terrain consists of hills and jungle, with a narrow road zigzagging along
the valley floor. Close to the
French entry point are some open paddy-fields.
And just to make life interesting, a fast-moving stream cuts the road
at a rough ford. Near the French
exit point, the valley floor is covered with tall elephant grass.
French force consists of 2 infantry battalions (the 2nd Coree Battalion, and
the 530th Vietnamese Light Battalion). Along
with them would go a company of tanks, an armoured reconnaissance company,
and an artillery battery. Attached
to this force were an engineering company, a company of paratroopers, a
company of trucks hauling 'vital supplies' (which were actually a
consignment of folding-chairs), a HQ unit, a medical unit, a company of “PIMS”
(Viet-Minh PoWs acting as porters), a militia company, and a gaggle of
friendly civilians. The French
also received 2 observation aircraft, as well as air-strikes from 2
Bearcats, 1 Hellcat, and 1 B26.
Viet-Minh force consists of 2 regular infantry battalions (with mortars), a
recoilless rifle company, a platoon of 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine guns,
the Regimental reconnaissance company, and 8 companies of regional troops.
The Viet-Minh also received 2 small minefields.
For this game, I was umpire and commander of the Viet-Minh forces
(Regimental Commander Tui Bin).
idea behind this scenario was to give Peter (as GM Commander, Colonel Pierre
Chasse) a set of remarkably unhelpful
orders, courtesy of his commanding officer - General
de Brigade Le Montgolfière
to then drop him in the deep-end. Off-road
movement in the game was severely restricted, to funnel the action along the
roads. Peter knew (as a French
commander would) that an ambush was likely, but its direction and strength
were unclear. Similarly, the
Viet-Minh commander (myself) knew Peter’s precise strength, but didn’t
know how Peter would arrange his convoy.
broke his force into 4 elements:
A, which had half of the 2nd Coree battalion, the engineers, half the
artillery, and 1 tank.
B, which contained the other half of the 2nd Coree battalion, the other
half of the artillery, the paras, the HQ company, the recon company, and
C, which was formed from the PIMS, the civilians, the Garde Nationale,
the supply trucks, and 1 tank.
D, which held the 530th TDKQ.
Peter’s plan, Group B would establish itself at defensive points along
Route 19, with Groups C and D then moving between those points.
Group A would act as the rearguard.
Viet-Minh plan was based on standard ambush tactics of the day.
Three companies of militia were stationed in ambush positions along
the road, to slow down and harass the French.
A main-force battalion, with recoilless rifles, was dug-in on the
Northern Hill just above the exit point.
With fields of fire over the road, the objective of this battalion
was to hold up the French and destroy its armour.
Viet-Minh militia units and mortars were to attack at points along
the length of the stalled convoy, to cause delay, to inflict casualties, and
to cause the French to disperse their troops (thus limiting the forces
available to assault the Northern Hill).
Once the French convoy was stalled and under attack, a second
main-force battalion would move through the jungle and execute a close
assault on the rear of the convoy and destroy the rearguard.
If all went well, this would leave the French trapped and under fire
from the front and the rear.
of the Battle:
Chasse’s advance guard moved forward and seized the ford without
opposition, under the watchful gaze of his observation aircraft.
Moving off from the ford, the lead armoured car triggered a mine
(which had no impact whatsoever), and caused a Viet-Minh regional company to
open a desultory fire from an ambush position.
The French responded with mortar and machine gun fire, scattering the
regionals. Chasse’s engineers
then went to work improving the ford, and assisting vehicles crossing the
lead elements moved slowly forward, and triggered another ambush by a Viet-Minh
regional company near the second bend in the road.
In this second ambush, Chasse’s lead armoured car (which had
already driven unscathed over one mine) drove unscathed over a second mine,
and somehow survived two rounds of point blank bazooka fire. I
grew to hate this armoured car.
then life began to get complex for Chasse.
A tropical rainstorm closed in, forcing his observation aircraft to
turn for home. This rainstorm
also flooded the ford, undoing all the good work of Chasse’s engineers.
One of the supply trucks got stuck in the ford, halting the movement
of the rest of the convoy. Chasse’s
reconnaissance company then ran into the Viet-Minh main-force battalion on
the Northern Hill, and lost an armoured car and a company of the Coree in
the process. Chasse’s force
was now split into two elements:
the Coree, the paras, the (depleted) reconnaissance company, 2 tanks,
half the artillery, and Peter’s HQ company; which were pinned down
near the Northern Hill; and
else (the remainder of the armour, artillery, and Coree, along with the
530th TDKQ, the PIMS, the civilians and the Garde National), which still
were back at the ford. Movement
by this group was difficult due to the “stickiness” of the TDKQ, and
to the ford (which claimed several more vehicles).
weather was preventing air support, and bad radio connections made artillery
support impossible. At that
point, the Viet-Minh counter attacked the rear of the forward group with the
Regimental reconnaissance company and a company of regionals.
This attack was spectacularly unsuccessful.
The recon company was able to do some damage to Chasse’s artillery
crews, but was gunned down by Chasse’s tanks, which moved quickly down the
column to address this threat. Similarly,
the regionals’ attack ran headfirst into Chasse’s para company, which
was moving to support the tanks. The
regionals were thrown back into the jungle in disarray.
this point, the weather improved, allowing Chasse to call in his
long-awaited air support. As a
bearcat rolled in to strafe the Northern Hill, the Viet-Minh AA gunners on
the other side of the valley opened fire (and missed entirely).
Undaunted, the bearcat pilot continued his strafing run, before
turning back to attack the Viet-Minh AA position.
The Viet-Minh AA gunners opened fire at this direct threat, missed
(again!), and suffered heavily for it. Chasse
then called in a B26 strike, which finished off the Viet-Minh AA positions,
before bombing the Northern Hill into a fine paste.
by his HQ halftrack, Chasse received disturbing news, his commanding officer
de Brigade Le Montgolfière
- had hitched a ride on a medical evacuation helicopter, and would be
landing in 5 minutes. The
General requested that a jeep be put at his disposal, and that a Pernod
(with plenty of ice) be prepared for him.
General’s helicopter landed amidst a flurry of dust, and the General put
himself to work, encouraging the stalled 530th TDKQ forward.
And using his 'old-boy' network, the General was also able to rustle
up some additional air support for Chasse
B26 and 1 Bearcat strike), which would prove very handy later on.
But the ford was still jammed with trucks and civilians, and progress
forward was slow.
the B-26 returned to base, Chasse moved the head of the column forward
again, with depleted recon company taking the lead.
But the Viet-Minh had survived the bombing of the Northern Hill, and
they launched a second ambush as the French drew close.
The French lost a halftrack and more of the Coree, and were again
forced to retreat.
then called in another Bearcat air-strike on the Northern Hill, which
knocked out the last Viet-Ming RCL team.
This was more than enough for the defending Viet-Minh battalion,
which collected up its dead and wounded, and silently retreated back into
the jungle. Chasse’s men
probed cautiously forward, to find that the enemy had departed.
things were different at the rear of the column...
was finally moving at the ford, the civilians and the supply vehicles had
crossed the stream and had linked up with the rear of Chasse’s forward
group. The engineers also
started moving off from the ford, and the General drove up the column to
liase with Chasse (and to find out what had happened to the Pernod he’d
ordered, dammit!). The 530th
TDKQ was now moving swiftly (if not enthusiastically), and Chasse began to
pull back the rearguard (2 companies of Coree) covering the ford.
then problems arose. A company
of regionals opened up with long-range rifle fire at the departing
rearguard. A truck towing a
105mm howitzer got stuck in the ford, and was promptly destroyed by a lucky
Viet-Minh mortar burst (thereby blocking the ford).
The engineers were also hit by another mortar concentration, losing
half their number. And as the
last elements of the rearguard clambered over the wrecked howitzer, and
crossed the ford, whistles and bugle calls announced a Viet-Minh attack on
the rear of the convoy.
second Viet-Minh main-force battalion had been held up by the dense jungle,
and by the lurking presence of Chasse’s armour.
But as Chasse’s armour moved towards the head of the column, two
companies of Viet-Minh regulars emerged from the South side of the road and
unleashed a deadly close-range fire on the passing TDKQ.
Chasse swung his armour around, and headed back to the rear of the
column. Air-strikes were
requested, and the rest of the convoy (under the command of the General) was
ordered to exit the table as quickly as possible.
The two Coree rearguard companies counter attacked the Viet-Minh, but
were caught in a cross-fire as the rest of the Viet-Minh battalion emerging
from the North side of the road. At
this point, out of sheer petulance, the TDKQ went to ground and refused to
with the assistance of tank fire, Chasse was able to clear the Viet-Minh
from the South side of the road, and a B26 (thanks to the General’s
old-boy network) flew in low to deliver a devastating strafing run on the
Viet-Minh to the North of the road. And
as Chasse, with drawn pistol, 'encouraged' the TDKQ to move, the morale of
the 2nd Viet-Minh battalion broke. The
Viet-Minh retreated into the jungle, and silence returned.
Commander Tui Bin began wondering how he could write up his report to make
this seem like a glorious Viet-Minh victory.
both of Chasse’s infantry battalions had suffered casualties of more than
40%, and his recon company and artillery battery were largely destroyed, the
remainder of his troops were intact. The
convoy had made it through to Ban Me Thuot, and the civilians and
folding-chairs could now be delivered into the proper hands.
Two Viet-Minh main-force battalions had been very roughly handled,
and would not be back in operation for some time.
By the standards of mid-1954, the operation could be considered a
Chasse did very well, given the terrain and his lack of infantry.
Armour and airpower were the key, and they were used effectively.
And the game seemed nicely 'historical'.
The Viet-Minh had powerful infantry, but were very vulnerable to
tanks and aircraft once their support units were gone.
The action switched from one end of the column to the other, with the
terrain giving real problems for the French.
most importantly, with an Edith Piaf CD playing loudly in the background, a
good time was had by all.
Whatever Happened to …
de Brigade Gerald Le Montgolfière
awarded the Legion
d’Honneur for his exploits on Route 19.
The citation to this award spoke of the General
to helicopter in to assist a Mobile Group that had stalled and was under
heavy attack. The
General “rallied the defenders and called in air-strikes to clear
the road, before personally leading the survivors to safety”.
In 1983 the General published his memoirs “Sand in my
Commander Tui Bin
was promoted for his bravery and excellent report-writing skills.
He served in the American war, and fled
in 1979. He moved to
, and opened several successful patisseries.
Folding Chairs from Pleiku
, where they served for several years (in a “support” capacity).
was acquitted by the Court of Inquiry held to investigate the evacuation
then whoever said that war was fair?