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Winning the first battles in a long war

Update: December, 22/2014 - 11:37

Legend: General Giap, Commander in Chief of Viet Nam People's Army, at the Ba Dinh Palace on 29 February, 1975. — VNA/VNS Photo The Trung

General Vo Nguyen Giap's account of the Vietnamese Propaganda and Liberation Army's first battle appears in his first memoir, From the People Onwards, which begins in 1940 and concludes before Viet Nam's August 1945 Revolution. In a chapter before the one presented here, Gen Giap quotes Ho Chi Minh's instructions for the newly established army: "Within about a month, you must stage an action. Your first battle must be a victory."

Three days after the army's founding, Giap staged the first two battles.

From the People Onwards has never appeared in a foreign language. I am finishing an English translation and was fortunate to have a grant from the Luce Foundation to research the French side of the story. Now, we have the name of the unfortunate French commander in the first battle, while from Gen Giap, we have his account of the French corporal's unintended death.

This first battle took place in Nguyen Binh District, Cao Bang Province in the mountainous far north of Viet Nam. Although the battle was very close to the Bac Kan provincial border, the label on the French file reads: "2nd Military District: Communist Activities in the Region of Thai Nguyen, 1944-1945." The battle was on Christmas Day, which is not of consequence for most Vietnamese but may account for the French commander's departure from Phai Khat for the district post in Nguyen Binh.

Gen Giap mentions the names of several members of the original army, which had thirty-four troops, only four of whom were ethnic Kinh.

Thu Son (a.k.a. Nguyen Van Cang, 1919-1998) was ethnic Tay from Hong Viet Village, Hoa An District, Cao Bang. He began his revolutionary activity in 1936, joined the Party in 1941, and studied at Whampoa Military Academy in Canton (Guangzhou, China). After this battle, Thu Son led units during the March to the South to oppose the French re-occupation of southern Viet Nam in late 1945, beginning three weeks after Viet Nam's Declaration of Independence [on September]. He subsequently commanded regional units in Cao Bang and in Tuyen Quang provinces. Thu Son retired as a lieutenant colonel.

Sam (a.k.a. Tran Van Ky, 1915-1968) was ethnic Vietnamese and came from Le Son Village, Tuyen Hoa District in Giap's home province of Quang Binh in Viet Nam's Central Region (Annam). At age twelve, he went to Thailand, where Ho Chi Minh trained him as a liaison youth. Sam joined the Party in 1933. He commanded the army's first company, which had four platoons and commanded the 304th Division at Dien Bien Phu. Hoang Sam was killed in combat while commander of Tri Thien (Quang Tri - Thua-Thien Hue) Region during the American War.

Luan, who fired the army's first shots perhaps from impetuous revenge but contrary to orders, was ethnic Kinh from Quang Binh. We don't yet know anything more about the unfortunate Frenchman, Corporal Simonneau.

Here is Gen Giap's account in From the People Onwards:

Our soldiers received their first combat orders on the afternoon of December 24, [1944], two days after we had formally established the army.

During previous days, as the squads carefully researched our plan for engaging the enemy, they came to understand the importance of "Your first battle must be a victory." Now, all the squads wanted to lead the vanguard breaking into an enemy post.

Bright yellow sunshine spread across the mountaintops. Our flag with its fresh star fluttered over our troops in formation. Soon, our armed soldiers filed along a twisting path, which meandered across the mountainside. I followed the first squad. Even though we were only one platoon, we had never used such a concentration of troops. I looked ahead and then glanced back and saw our line of soldiers stretching into the distance.

Before we descended onto the plain, we stepped off the path and into the forest, where we changed our clothes, disguising ourselves as a unit from the enemy's indigenous forces. As soon as it was dark, we moved on down the mountain and onto the Kim Ma Plain. After supper, everyone slept for a while alongside the rice paddies, breathing in the fields' fragrance. At midnight, we rose and silently climbed a mountain, which was located about a kilometre behind the enemy post.

That night, I found it impossible to sleep. We had prepared our plan carefully, but I still had to anticipate the unexpected.

Naval boost: Soldiers attend a flag-raising ceremony at the Cam Ranh Military Port in Khanh Hoa Province to receive two submarines, the first acquired by Viet Nam. — VNA/VNS Photo Duc Tam

Phai Khat Village, which belonged to Tam Long Commune, had about ten households alongside a stream. A wide rice plain stretched in front of the village, which backed up against a cluster of mountains. Phai Khat was a "complete" village, meaning everyone took part in our Viet Minh Association to Save the Nation [or the League for Viet Nam Independence]. The enemy had been unable to shake a single villager's will from the beginning of his terror until now. The compatriots maintained their liaison connections and diligently supplied food for revolutionary cadre working undercover. The enemy had occupied Comrade Lac's house to billet soldiers. Since the enemy was concentrated inside Phai Khat Village, in order to enter the French post, we would have to cross two perimeters. The enemy forced the villagers to patrol the outer perimeter, while enemy soldiers patrolled the fort's inner and major perimeter. This post had nearly twenty indigenous soldiers under a French officer's command.

We had carefully studied the post's layout, including the location of its arms storeroom, the commander's quarters, the soldiers' bunkroom, and the mess hall; we had also scrutinized the enemy's daily schedule. Little Hong had told us the guards took their weapons with them when they went to eat and then would hang up their rifles in the mess hall.

Our unit had made its plan. We would disguise ourselves as a platoon of enemy indigenous soldiers coming from the district to check the local Phai Khat Post. In that way, we could break in easily. Once we'd blown in like a sudden gust of wind, we would occupy the arms storeroom and force all enemy soldiers to surrender. If they resisted, we would use our weapons and kill them.

Making history: Gen Giap delivered ten hononary oaths for the Vietnamese People's Propaganda Unit for national Liberation (now Viet Nam People's Army) at a founding ceremony in Cao Bang Province on 22 December, 1944. — VNA/VNS file photo

We knew the best time for action was around 5 pm, when the enemy ate supper. It would still be daylight. However, our disguises would make daytime entry easier because the enemy would be less watchful. By the time we finished our operation, it would be dark. Even if the Vietnamese indigenous forces alerted their supervising post in Nguyen Binh, the district seat, the enemy would be unable to send reinforcements before morning. We would have the night to tidy up the battlefield, prepare the local people for the enemy's retaliation, and withdraw.

The entire next day, our soldiers remained on the small mountain behind Phai Khat. Several Liberation Army soldiers dressed as ordinary villagers stood watch at the paths' intersections. The local self-defence comrades had created a net of protection around our unit. Several unwanted events could occur. If the enemy sent his forces up the mountain, we would secretly withdraw without leaving a trace. If local people started climbing the mountain to gather firewood or timber, local self-defence guerrillas would usher them away in a different direction.

Early the next morning, some women from the village secretly brought us rice and water. Around midday, just as we had predicted, several villagers decided to gather firewood, but the local self-defence cleverly led them to a different mountain.

Scouts kept us apprised of the enemy's situation. Little Hong reported that the French commander had left on horseback for the district town. The French officer's departure relieved us of one obstacle.

Watchful: Border soldiers and residents on a patrol in Ha Giang Province. — VNA/VNS Photo Ngo My

That afternoon, after 2pm, the women once again secretly brought us rice. After eating, Party members and  officers divided up to caucus with the warriors, review each detail, and encourage perfection in our army's first battle.

At 5pm, the Phai Khat villagers were startled to see a unit of indigenous soldiers wearing indigo-blue uniforms with the trousers bunched up over their leggings. These troops sported blue helmets with white encircling the brims. A "chief" and two soldiers from the special troops that the French used to squash insurrections led this unit, which marched toward the village from the direction of Nguyen Binh. The unit reached the village gate in the outer perimeter. One of our advancing soldiers handed the village guard an introduction paper. Dividing into three groups, our soldiers marched into the French post.

Villagers who were Viet Minh members assumed the enemy was adding troops to the post. Surely, they said to each other, tomorrow will bring more terror. Some villagers slipped off to report this news to the undercover comrades.

Squad commander Thu Son wore the khaki uniform of a special soldier for squelching insurrections. He faced the Vietnamese soldier from the indigenous forces guarding the gate to the inside perimeter of the French fort. Thu Son's squad stood in formation behind him.

"Is the French commander here?" Thu Son asked in a loud voice. "We've come to inspect."

He removed his false introduction papers and showed the guard the red stamp. Then he pushed the guard aside and marched into the post, with Squad 1 following on his heels. Comrade Thu Son led his squad straight into the enemy's arms storeroom. Squad 2 followed Squad 1, encircled the post's interior, and occupied the mess hall with the post's soldiers.

Some soldiers were eating supper, while others were hanging their clothes out to dry.

"Rat-sam-mang!" (Fall in!) " Squad Commander Thu Son shouted in French.

With this order, the soldiers lined up to salute our unit arriving from the district.

Seventeen indigenous soldiers and one special soldier for insurrections stood in formation in the courtyard. Thu Son trained his gun on them.

"We are the revolutionary army," he shouted. "Raise your hands and surrender. If you don't, you'll be killed. Hands up!"

All the troops in our squad pointed their guns at the enemy soldiers.

Our entry had caught the garrison by surprise, leaving them no time to oppose us. They raised their hands in surrender.

At just that moment, our scout, who had been stationed three kilometres away on the Nguyen Binh road, galloped into the fort. He reported that the French commander was returning on horseback, along with several unarmed regional soldiers.

We had to address this development and capture the French commander. I ordered one group to keep the captured regional soldiers silent out behind the post. Others from our unit arranged the scattered booty in the courtyard. I ordered those guarding the post perimeter to pretend they were the post's guards from the regional forces. Another group hid in the rafters under the verandah roof, waiting to ambush the post commander. Aiming their guns, they would force him to surrender. We had decided to capture the commander alive; if he resisted, we would open fire. I gave orders to our unit outside the post. Should the Frenchman see them and flee, they were to shoot and give chase.

Hoang Sam, Thu Son, Luan, and I lay on rafters under the verandah roof.

"When the Frenchman enters," I whispered, "I'll shout, 'Hands up.' If he raises his hands, jump down and capture him. Don't open fire unless I give that order."

The Frenchman sat atop a huge sorrel horse. He rode leisurely into the post as if everything were usual. The moment he dismounted, the Frenchman heard a shout: "Hands up!"

Excerpts from a French report

This French report written on December 29, 1944, four days after the Phai Khat Battle, is from Acting Resident Superior for Tonkin Paul Chauvet (1905-2007) to Governor General for French Indochina Jean Decoux (1884-1963). At this time the name "Viet Nam" did not appear on world maps. French Indochina comprised Laos, Cambodia, and three regions of modern-day Viet Nam: Tonkin (the Northern Region), Annam (the Central Region), and Cochin China (the Southern Region).

Paul Chauvet reported:

"The commander of the 2nd Territory has informed me of a surprise attack during the night of December 25-26 on two posts with established security in the area under the authority of NGUYEN BINH [District Seat].

"The first site was at PHAI KHAT located ten kilometers from NGUYEN BINH. This fort with 18 troops commanded by a European corporal fell at night to a band of a hundred [sic] individuals with military equipment. [Note: Opposite "military equipment" is a hand-written question mark.]

"Corporal Simonneau was killed, and the troops were disarmed and taken as hostages."

"At daybreak [on December 26], a detachment with twenty Indochinese guards commanded by a sergeant at NA NGAN located 6 kilometers 500 [metres] to the north of BEL AIR was surprised in the same fashion.

"One guard was killed, and the sergeant was severely wounded, while the arms of the other militiamen were confiscated."

Paul Chauvet noted the need for enhanced security and then wrote:

"Although at this time, I do not have other details about the nature and composition of the elements who carried out these two audacious blows and cannot yet make conjectures, I think this activity is related to revolutionary actions stirred up for the past several months in the 2nd Territory."

Paul Chauvet finished his report with suggestions for military intervention.

Source: File: GGI / CM / 663, Archives nationales d'outre mer (French Ministry of Colonies Archives, Aix-en-Provence, France).

Suddenly there was gunfire. Bullets struck the post commander and his horse. Both collapsed onto the courtyard. Luan had shot them.

Here was a problem we hadn't sufficiently foreseen - the difficulty in repressing our hatred when facing the enemy.

The villagers heard the gunfire and, realizing something had happened, hurried toward the post. They were surprised and delighted when they recognized us. Applauding, they clasped our warriors' hands and cheered when they saw the corpses of the Frenchman and his horse in the courtyard. However, some villagers worried that the enemy would surely terrorize them in revenge.

If we'd been able to capture the post commander alive, we would have re-educated him through the careful explanations we used with enemy troops. Then we would have released him. Had that been the case, we might have achieved some political gain, and we might have limited the enemy's reaction. But we didn't have that choice. This unexpected challenge forced us to find a solution.

I ordered our troops to gather the booty, clean the battlefield, and leave nothing useful behind. We would distribute the pigs, chickens, blankets, mosquito nets, bowls, and plates among the villagers. One group of our soldiers carried the corpses away for burial and removed traces of blood from the courtyard.

We told the local people what to do when the imperialists sent their soldiers. The villagers had only to say: "We saw indigenous troops arriving from the district seat. They entered the post. Then we saw the post soldiers leave and follow the indigenous troops who had come from the district. We don't know where they went."

We also told our compatriots: During this period, the youth - both men and women - should leave the village temporarily to avoid the enemy's terror.

We instructed the captured indigenous forces, saying we would take them to another site, where we would provide them with thorough explanations. Afterwards, those wanting to join our revolutionary army could enlist. Those wanting to return home would receive safe-transit papers. — VNS

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