Battle of Nà Sản

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Battle of Nà Sản
Part of First Indochina War
Bataille de Na San.png
Date 23 November 1952 – 2 December 1952
Location Nà Sản, Sơn La Province, Vietnam
Result French Union victory and successful evacuation
Belligerents
France French Union
North Vietnam Việt Minh
Commanders and leaders
Jean Gilles Võ Nguyên Giáp
Strength
15,000, 6 artillery batteries 3 divisions
Casualties and losses
Close to 2 battalions (around 500 men) around 3000 dead and wounded

The Battle of Nà Sản was fought between French Union forces and the Nationalist forces of the Việt Minh at Nà Sản, Sơn La Province, during the First Indochina War for control of the T’ai region (Northwest territory).

  • "… Souhaitons que Giap commette l'erreur d'y venir!" ("Let's wish that Giap makes the mistake by coming!"). Bảo Đại
  • "… sans elle (l'aviation), Na San n’était pas possible et je perdais la bataille du Nord-Ouest -" ( … without it [air-support], Na San would not be possible and I would’ve lost the Northwest battle). Raoul Salan
  • "… it (the battle) wasn’t a defeat—but we suffered losses." Võ Nguyên Giáp
  • "Nous ne sommes pas entamés! Ca tient partout! C’est un déluge de feu indescriptible." ("We have not been breached! All (positions) hold! It is an indescribable deluge of fire.") Jean Gilles

Events leading to the Battle of Nà Sản[edit]

The Battle of Hòa Bình[edit]

  • In the Fall of 1950, French Expeditionary forces lost 7,000 men and over 3,000 tons of weapons after having been beaten by the Việt Minh in the Battle of Cao-Bac Lang. To avoid further losses, General Marcel Carpentier decided to withdraw all military forces from Hòa Bình, capital of the Muong region.
  • In November 1951, General De Lattre, Carpentier's replacement, launched an offensive operation against the Việt Minh in Hòa Bình to reclaim an area he saw as vital for France's future in Indochina. According to De Lattre, capturing Hòa Bình would cut the enemy's supply line between Thanh Hóa and Việt Bắc. Psychologically, reclaiming the province would gain support from the Mường, who had supported neither side, but were leaning more toward the Franco-Vietnamese force.
  • In November 1951, De Lattre mobilized 10 infantry and eight airborne battalions in this decisive operation. Giáp counterattacked with three regular divisions, two independent regiments, and regional support troops. The two sides fought hard for Hòa Bình. At the height of the operations, Giáp had 40 battalions fighting his enemies at different locations throughout the province. In January 1952, French forces were winning when De Lattre had to go back to France for cancer treatment and General Salan was appointed to take his place.
  • General Salan, who saw the province as an area that was hard to support and to defend, decided to withdraw his troops (Operation Amarante). On 22 February, French troops successfully withdrew from Hòa Bình and regrouped in Xuan Mai two days later.

T'ai region[edit]

  • Eight months after having successfully defended Hòa Binh, General Giáp attacked Nghĩa Lộ in the T'ai region which he failed to take a year earlier. General Giáp used four regular divisions (308th, 312th, 316th and artillery division 351st) to attack the province's southeast and the regional regiment 148th to guard the northwest side against reinforcements. In 10 days, Việt Minh forces not only took Nghĩa Lộ but also seized part of Sơn La and Lai Châu from French control.
  • To avoid further losses, General Salan launched Operation Lorraine to relieve the Việt Minh's pressure in the T'ai region and to serve as a diversion while Na San was being built. The operation, led by General de Linares, started on 9 November and lasted until 19 November.
  • While the operation was going on, General Salan tasked Colonel Jean Gilles of establishing an entrenched fire support base at Nà Sản to stop General Giáp's offensive.

Nà Sản[edit]

Nà Sản, conveniently located on provincial route 41 (RP 41), was a valley of 2 km x 1 km surrounded by 24 hills that could serve as natural defense positions. In early October 1952, there was a single outpost and a short airstrip, both guarded by a company under the command of a non-commissioned officer. General Salan used the Hanoi-based French Air Force Dakotas to transport troops and material there in order to complete a fortified outpost allowing a direct confrontation with the Việt Minh divisions.

The "hedgehog"[edit]

During the battle, Colonel Gilles used a new tactic, called "the hedgehog" (le hérisson), for the first time. The hedgehog defense consisted of an outpost surrounded by several armed positions (point d'appui or P.A.). The objective was to provoke an enemy frontal assault, rather than fighting off hit-and-run attacks or falling into ambushes. Nà Sản's hedgehog consisted of 30 P.A. with a complicated trench system, enforced with barbed wires. Its defense forces consisted of 11 battalions (15,000 men) and 6 artillery batteries.

This tactic earned the French a victory at the battle of Nà Sản. As a result, the hedgehog defense became standard practice, until the French defeat at Điện Biên Phủ.

The evacuation of a similar outpost at An Khê led to the disastrous Battle of Mang Yang Pass that ended the war in 1954. Though the Na San camp was successfully evacuated itself in August 1953.

Opposing forces[edit]

Franco-Vietnamese forces at Nà Sản[edit]

Colonel Jean Gilles, Na San Commander
Groupement Lansade
  • 2nd battalion, 1st Algerian Light Infantry Regiment (II/1er Régiment de tirailleurs algériens)
  • 3rd battalion, 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment (III/3e régiment étranger d'infanterie), commandant Favreau
  • 2nd battalion, 6th Moroccan Light Infantry Regiment (II/6e Régiment de tirailleurs marocains)
Groupement mobile Vietnamien (Vietnamese Mobile Group)
  • 1st Thai Battalion (BM/BT 1)
  • 2nd Thai Battalion (BT 2)
  • 3rd Thai Battalion (BT 3), commandant Vaudrey
  • 55th BVN (55e Bataillon Vietnamien), capitaine Phạm Văn Đồng
  • 3rd Battalion, 5th Foreign Infantry Regiment (III/5e régiment étranger d'infanterie), chef de bataillon Dufour
Groupement parachutiste (Airborne Group)

Lieutenant colonel Ducourneau

  • 1st Foreign Airborne Battalion (1er bataillon étranger de parachutistes), chef de bataillon Brothier
  • 2nd Foreign Airborne Battalion (2e bataillon étranger de parachutistes), chef de bataillon Bloch
  • 3rd Colonial Airborne Battalion (3e bataillon de parachutistes coloniaux), capitaine Bonnigal
Artillerie (Artillery)
  • 5th Vietnamese Artillery Group (5e GAVN with 2 batteries of 105 howitzers)
  • 41st Colonial Artillery Regiment (41e régiment d'artillerie coloniale)
  • Foreign Legion Mortar Company (CMLE had one section with four 120 mm guns and one section with six 81 mm mortars)
Génie (Engineer)

Commandant Casso

  • 6 sections (2 companies)

Air support[edit]

Aéronaval
Armée de l'air (Air Force)
  • Gascogne 1/19 Bombing Group (B-26)

Việt Minh attacking forces[edit]

General Vo Nguyen Giap, Commander of the Thai region Campaign

Dai doan 308 (Division 308)

Commander : Colonel Vuong Thua Tu

  • Regiment 36
  • Regiment 88
  • Regiment 102
Dai doan 312 (Division 312)

Commander : Colonel Le Trong Tan

  • Regiment 141
  • Regiment 165
  • Regiment 209
Dai doan 316 (Division 316)

Commander : Colonel Le Quang Ba

  • Regiment 98
  • Regiment 174
  • Regiment 176

The battle[edit]

Camp retranché de Na San nov-déc 1952.jpg
  • 23 November at 2000:

Vietminh forces from the 88/308 attacked twice at P.A. 8 and twice it was pushed back by the entrenched Franco-Vietnamese troops.

  • 24 to 30 November:

Every night, Vietminh forces attacked different points to test French defense. During the days, defending troops patrolled within their fire-support range for reconnaissance.

  • Late 30 November into 1 December:

At 8:00 PM, Vietminh forces from 9 battalions attacked P.A. 22 bis and 24, respectively located east and west of the entrenched headquarters. P.A. 22 bis, defended by a company of the 2nd Thai battalion (BT2) was overrun by the 115th battalion (165/312) after 9 hours of relentless attacks. Of the 225 men defending the P.A., only one squad was able to escape back to the airfield. P.A. 24 bravely resisted 3 hours of constant attacks by the 102/308 before surrendering.

  • 1 December:

Colonel Gilles, who wanted to take back the 2 points so close to Na San's headquarters, launched his attack at dawn. After a barrage of artillery fire, two companies of the 2nd Foreign Airborne Battalion stormed and took back 22 bis. After 7 hard-fought hours, the 3rd BPC took back P.A. 24.

  • Late 1 December into 2 December:

At 9:00 PM, General Giap's forces launched their all out offensive at Nà Sản. Wave after wave of soldiers relentlessly assaulted several P.A., especially 21 bis and 26; sometimes the attackers outnumbered the defenders fifteen to one. All night, Dakotas dropped flares over the battlefields to give support troops visibility to defend the positions. Defending forces continuously fired their cannons into Vietminh human waves while Privateers dropped bombs onto enemy positions around Nà Sản. The battles raged on until mid-morning when all attacks abruptly stopped, leaving behind an eerie silence.

Na San had achieved the unthinkable: halting Giap's seemingly unstoppable Vietminh forces.

Aftermath[edit]

  • On 4 December after nearly 2 weeks of trying to overrun Na San, General Giap withdrew his troops leaving behind 1,544 dead and 1,932 wounded prisoners (official numbers as reported by R. Vecken and P. Gras on the Flotille 9F website).
  • The defending Franco-Vietnamese forces lost close to 2 battalions.[verification needed]
  • Despite the victory, France was looking for a political solution to get out of Indochina and Na San was abandoned in August 1953. The tactician Colonel Gilles again outmaneuvered General Giap by evacuating the whole camp without a single loss. In "Ba sinh hương lửa", Doan Quoc Sy quoted a Vietminh officer with the forces surrounding Na San, "The enemy withdrew without our knowledge ... until there was only one battalion left ... the enemy was able to escape and save its entire forces because of our poor military intelligence".

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

  • Lt. Gen. Phillip B. Davidson, USA (Ret.) (1998). Vietnam at War. Presidio Press. ISBN 0-89141-306-5. 
  • Dufour, Nicolas (October 1999). NASAN, La victoire oubliée (1952-1953) [Nasan, the forgotten victory (1952-1953)] (in French). Economica. ISBN 2-7178-3940-2. 
  • Salan, Raoul Albin Louis (1971). Memoires: fin d'un empire, tome 2: Le Viet Minh mon adversaire [Memoires: the end of an empire, volume 2: Viet Minh, my adversary] (in French). Paris: Presses de la Cite. 
  • Simpson, Howard R. (August 1992). Tiger in the Barbed Wire: An American in Vietnam, 1952-1991. Brassey's Inc. ISBN 0-7881-5148-7. 
  • AFRVN Military History Section, J-5, Strategic Planning and Policy. Quân Sử 4: Quân lực Việt Nam Cộng Hòa trong giai-đoạn hình-thành: 1946-1955 (reprinted from the 1972 edition in Taiwan, DaiNam Publishing, 1977) [AFRVN, the formation period, 1946-1955] (in Vietnamese). 
  • Doan Quoc Sy (1962). Ba sinh hương lửa [Three periods of Fire] (in Vietnamese). Saigon: Sáng Tạo. 
  • Dinh Xuan Lam (1998). Lich Su 12, Tap 2 [12th Grade History, Volume 2] (in Vietnamese). HCM City, Vietnam: Ministry of Education.